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FCC on the move to Commonwealth

Date: 07/04/2013/Speaker: Rev Yap Kim Hao

World-wide attention was drawn to the election and subsequent installation of Pope Francis from Argentina. Wide-spread comments were and are being made from different perspectives. The life and work of the former Cardinal is closely scrutinized to help us understand him. His words and actions are carefully analyzed and watched. A couple of skeletons were unearthed. For anyone who seeks high office one must be prepared for such a process to take place.

Pope Francis has received compliments and condemnation, applause and abuse, congratulations and curses. This is to be expected for he is after all a human being of 76 years of age. He is now elevated to the position as Vicar of Christ – representing Jesus from the village of Nazareth to the Catholic Church. The dogma of the Catholic Church is that the Pope is infallible.

In Catholic tradition Papal infallibility persists.  The Latin phrase ex cathedra (literally, “from the chair”) has been defined as meaning “when, in the exercise of his office as shepherd and teacher of all Christians, in virtue of his supreme apostolic authority, (the Bishop of Rome) defines a doctrine concerning faith or morals to be held by the whole Church”. (Wikipedia). Therefore what the Catholic Pope pronounces officially becomes dogma and indisputable truth acknowledged by faithful Christians.

I want to share with you the persona of Pope Francis gathered from the politically correct official statements and the prolific personal comments from different sources.

The Pope intentionally chose the name of Francis – Saint Francis of Assisi to project a picture of simplicity. Saint Francis was a 13th century preacher who was a wealthy young man but gave up his pursuit of worldly  goods and embraced a life of poverty. The call he received at that time was “Repair the Church.”

Accordingly, Pope Francis replaced the pomp and pageantry of a Roman Pontiff and wanted to lead of life of simplicity and austerity. He abandoned the traditional papal regalia and appeared as a Pope in a simple white robe and a plain cross instead of a golden one before the adoring public. He chose to wear the ordinary black shoes and not the red shoes of his predecessor. After his installation he used an open vehicle and not the Papal limousine to greet the public.

Pope Francis has made a mark of humility in relating personally with the less fortunate. In meeting with the dignitaries of the world he took time to get close to a group of handicapped people in wheel-chairs.  As a priest, he cares for the poor and the needy in his country and reaches out to them in a personal way. He worked in the slums and celebrated mass with the drug addicts and people living with Aids. I was touched to read about his willingness to eat with the prostitutes and kiss the feet of the Aid victims in his city. After the Maundy Thursday service last week, he deliberately went to the Juvenile prison and watched the feet of twelve prisoners which included two women and two Muslims. He broke the tradition of watching the feet of twelve priests.

Pope Francis said during the Mass, “He must open his arms to protect all of God’s people and embrace with tender affection the whole of humanity, especially the poorest, the weakest, the least important, those whom Matthew lists in the final judgment on love: the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison.” He sounded the note of tenderness and reminded me of one of my favorite old hymns – “Softly and Tenderly Jesus is Calling.”

His life style as a Cardinal and now Pope is commendable. He travels on the bus with his fellow Cardinals back to their hotel and insisted on paying his own bills. In Buenos Aries, he lived in his humble home rather than the Archbishop’s palace. He travels by public transportation like the SBS Transit and SMRT.

So far he has endeared himself with many of those in the lower social classes and admired by kind people of higher social classes around the world. His personal ministry is touching the lives of those whom he comes in contact with. He has broken some of the rigid traditions of the Vatican and the office of the Papacy. He operates a different style. He is showing a different face of the Papacy.

Style must lead to substance. Symbol must point to reality. Flair must result in sacrifice, worship must follow to action.

Take a look at skeletons in his past – the case of his attitude to the LGBTQ community and those who are victims of social injustice. They do not perceive his concern for them when they are targets of discrimination objects of disappearances.

Pope Francis is still a product of the traditional orthodox, conservative theology of the Catholic Church. The challenges that he faces as the Catholic leaders have faced before him are obvious. Still in place is the long unresolved litany of controversial issues – celibacy of the priests, ordination of women, same-sex marriage,
contraception, abortion, sexual abuse, corruption of power the Curia, accountability in the Vatican Bank, declining numbers of those seeking holy orders, reduced church membership and depleted reserves due to settling of legal actions. In the face of them, Pope Benedict decided to step down and passed the Papal responsibility to a person who is just two years younger than him.

Vatican Radio just last month made this broadcast of an interview with a Catholic scholar:
Vatican Radio: It’s been centuries since a Pope has resigned the See of Peter. Can you tell us about the last Pope to resign?
Dr. Donald Prudlo: The last Pope to resign was almost six hundred years ago. It was Pope Gregory XII, who, in a very sacrificial gesture offered to resign so that the council of Constance could assume his power and appoint a new Pope, and in so doing bring an end Great Western Schism. So that was the last pope who actually resigned. So this is quite an unprecedented event.
VR: At one point there was a question of whether it was possible for a Pope to resign. When and how did the Church determine that this was possible?
DP: Certainly. At the end of the 13th century, a very holy hermit named Peter was elected as Pope Celestine V in order to break a deadlock in the conclave that had lasted nearly three years. He was elected because of his personal holiness, sort of a unity candidate. And once he got there, being a hermit, not used to the ways of the Roman Curia, he found himself somewhat unsuited to the task, that it wasn’t just holiness but also some shrewdness and prudence that was also required. So within six months he knew that he was really unequal to the task, and so he gathered the cardinals together in a consistory, just as was recently done, a couple hours ago, and he announced to the cardinals his intention to resign. Because of the Pope’s position as the supreme authority in the Church, Celestine declared that the pope could freely resign, that it was permissible, and that, because, as supreme authority, it did not have to be accepted by anyone. It just had to be freely manifested, as it says today in canon 332 of the Code of Canon Law. As long as it is freely and properly manifested it is to be accepted by no one. The Pope is the supreme authority.

Why is it that the gay issue is not within his radar of responsibility? Among the poor there are LGBT and also among the people living with Aids. He could have ministered to them but unconcerned with the question of their sexuality. If he did, he would have said simply “Go and sin no more.” Let us not forget that half the
population are women. The rights of women in church and society have to be recognized too..

The LGBT activists have disclosed some of his most caustic anti-gay remarks: In 2010, he equated gay people, gay marriage and adoption by gay couples with the devil, which was enough to have Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernandez, labelled  his statements “medieval.” He took issue with her and was willing to compromise by supporting civil union instead of gay marriage. He described it as the “lessor of two evils,” according to his authorized biographer, Sergio Rubin, but even then his fellow bishops voted against his proposal. 70% of the electorate approved of gay marriage in Argentina and he was defeated.

The government’s marriage equality law went further to allow gays to adopt children, and without the three-year waiting period to which straight couples under 30 must adhere. The influential Huffington Post recently suggested that Pope Francis may even be a closeted pro-gay. It quoted an Argentinian gay activist who was surprised that the Cardinal responded to his challenge at that time.

“He listened to my views with a great deal of respect,” said Marcelo Márquez, a gay rights leader and theologian who wrote a tough letter to Cardinal Bergoglio and, to his surprise, received a call from him less than an hour after it was delivered. “He told me that homosexuals need to have recognized rights and that he supported civil unions, but not same-sex marriage.” Mr. Márquez said he went on to meet twice with Cardinal Bergoglio, telling him of his plan to marry his partner and discussing theology. The man who would become pope gave him a copy of his biography, “The Jesuit.”

However, Esteban Paulón, President of the Argentine Federation of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals, and Transsexuals, notes that while Bergoglio might have struck a conciliatory tone in private, “He took a role, in public, that was determinedly combative,” and said some “terrible things.” In addition to backing large protests against same-sex marriage, he described the bill in a letter as a “destructive pretension against the plan of God” and argued that gay adoptions discriminate against children. Later he called gay marriage “the devil’s work.”

A Gay Catholic wrote in his blog his conclusion about Pope Francis and gays: “It is unlikely that Pope Francis will be the progressive Pope we hoped for but I continue to have hope that the Holy Spirit can infuse this Vicar of Christ on earth with the spirit of St Francis. I am skeptical yet hopeful.” He has to come to terms with the LGBT cause and political freedom. We can join with the sentiments of our gay Catholic brother and pray that Pope Francis will be more open to the work of the Holy Spirit.

It is not surprising that Evangelical leaders are calling for a united front with Pope Francis on a number of social justice issues. Evangelical churches and the Catholic Church are both homophobic. Both prefer welfare work but avoid advocacy role in issues. But there are other differences between them: Christianity Today, an influential evangelical publication noted: “To be fair to the new pope, by inviting Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and Jains to his inaugural Mass, Francis is light-years ahead of most evangelicals, who would be less inclined to reach out to non-Christians.”

Another explosive action was unearthed which comes out of his opposition to liberation theology. The analysis of the extensive poverty in Latin America led to the emergence of liberation theology. in reaction the military junta grasped power in Argentina from 1976 to 1983 in a bloody period called the “Dirty War.” It was an
anti-Communist movement to eradicate Communism and eliminate all Communists and their sympathizers. It was not unlike Operation Cold Store and Operation Spectrum or Marxist Conspiracy in our past history. It was the first time that I came upon the issue of “Disappearances” in Latin America. In Argentina, an estimated 30,000
were killed and among them pregnant women after they gave birth during their incarceration and the babies given to childless military families.

Grandmothers and mothers demonstrated in central Plaza de Mayo. They carried photographs of their missing loved ones who were detained and literally disappeared and never to return again. Human Rights lawyers accuse Cardinal Bergoglio who had twice refused to testify in open court trials dealing with torture, murder and theft of babies born to political detainees. When he finally did testify, he was evasive.

In the year 2000, The Catholic Church in Argentina made a public apology for its failure to take a stand against the generals and their military rule. “We want to confess before God everything we have done badly,” Argentina’s Episcopal Conference said at that time. “We share everyone’s pain and once again ask the forgiveness of everyone we failed or didn’t support as we should have,” Pope Francis was the Provincial or Superior of his Order of Jesuits then. While many of his brothers opposed the cruel regime, he stood apart and was later accused of being complicit in the massacre.

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We cannot serve the poor faithfully without considering the causes for their poverty. The liberation theology which he opposes tries to raise the consciousness of the people about the causes of poverty. We touch the poor one by one but the basic needs of the poor masses are not met. While eating with the prostitutes, he is not addressing the rights of sex workers and the social conditions that bring about prostitution.

Ministry has to be personal but the collective issues and institutional systems of domination and exploitation cannot be ignored. As long as human rights are trampled we are not doing the right thing by only touching individuals one by one.

Beyond just befriending the poor people individually he must engage in addressing the issue of poverty and alleviate the suffering of the masses collectively.

The Archbishop acknowledged however that it would take “extraordinary Christ-liberated courage” to tackle the challenges presented by the economy, environment and global poverty. “Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream,” he said. The goal is to shape a more human and humane community.

It is my own experience that in encountering the poor people my conscience cannot be satisfied if I do not address the issue of poverty. This has been the problem when we are eager to provide aid to the poor but will not deal with the problem or the conditions that give rise to increasing numbers of poor people. At best we provide
momentary assistance but not more permanent solution. There must be transformation of the social and political systems.. We must realise how the poor came about. Very casually we say that they are uneducated,they are lazy, they did not do well in school and it is all their fault. We fail to account for their impoverished situation and were not given the level playing field and forced to start from the same starting block. The truth is that for the most part they became poor because they were made poor by our systems. They did not become poor but were made poor by those with power and influence.

Pope Francis has said he wants “a poor Church, for the poor” following his election as head of the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics on Wednesday. The Bible is specific: Sell all you have and give it to the poor. The Bible literally tells you so.

Notwithstanding that it is not practical to dispose of the wealth of the Catholic Church, the Church for the poor demands standing in solidarity with the poor and not just befriending and feeding them. Poor people will naturally hope that Pope Francis will challenge social and political injustices and call for greater financial
assistance for the developing world on the part of the rich countries and not to further exploit them to maintain and enrich their affluence. It is an imperative to narrow the widening chasm between the rich and the poor.  If he shirks this kind of advocacy then all this call for a Church for the poor is hollow rhetoric.

It is well for us to be reminded by another Latin American – Brazilian Archbishop Dom Helder Camara’s famous quote is “when I give food to the poor I’m called a saint and when I question why they are poor, I’m called a communist.”  We may wish that to give food to the poor makes one somewhat of a good person but certainly not a saint. It is when we ask why they are poor and who made them poor then we are on the road to sainthood.

It is my hope that Pope Francis will escalate his commitment now that he is elevated to the world scene and has a global responsibility. In the globalized and pluralistic world he is confronted with People of other faiths as well. He has been used to a country predominantly of Roman Catholic Christians. He was dealing with the inroads into Catholicism in Argentina by the aggressive conservative Protestant movements. 90% of Argentinians are once Catholic but the numbers have decreased due to the evangelistic crusades of the Pentecostal movement. 70% of Latin Americans remain as Catholic and the non-Catholic numbers have increased.

Did you detect his call to evangelism to his fellow Cardinals. As a Pope he has to be concerned with the situation of Christianity which is no longer the dominant religion in the  resurgence of a multi-religious world. He cannot hope for a Catholic world nor even a totally Christian world.

The speech that Cardinal Bergoglio made at the Conclave before his election has just surfaced. His handwritten notes were given and revealed by the Archbishop of Havana, Jaime Ortega. In it, Bergoglio was highly critical of his Church. He insisted that “The Church is called to come out of herself and to go to the peripheries, not only in the geographical sense but also to go to the existential peripheries: those of the mystery of sin, of pain, of injustice, of ignorance and of religious indifference, of thought, of all misery.”

He went on to point to a “self-referential” sickness in the Catholic Church that “seeks Jesus Christ within and does not let him out.” This practice, he said, allows evil to grow within the institutional Church, expressing itself as “theological narcissism.” Narcissism comes from the Greek myth of the handsome youth Narcissus who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water. It signifies the attitude of selfishness and inward-looking. It is pre-occupation with oneself.

Suggesting a direction for reform, the cardinal bemoaned a Church “living in itself, of itself, for itself.”

Now allow me to relate to our situation as we turn the page to a new chapter of the development of FCC. There are lessons to learn from the reflections that I have made
relating to Pope Francis.

Ten years ago when I first preached in FCC my sermon title was “Doing a New Thing.” When I checked I found that sermon along with all the sermons preached in 2003 have mysteriously been trashed. What I want to say today is “Doing a Different Thing.”

With elected leadership in FCC we enter into a different and exciting phase of our development. Each and every member is responsible for FCC’s  life and mission. We are part of the decision-making process. We must assume the responsibility to determine its destiny. This is now very much our church and take ownership. We have to work together to grow it. What is the direction of FCC?  Together we have to explore it.

Pope Francis has deliberately chose to offer a different face of the Church. He is trying to make a difference. He appears to fancy doing things which are different. He is attempting to break away from tradition and do a new and different thing.

Unlike the Catholic Church with its over two thousand years of history and tradition FCC is barely ten years. old. We too carry some baggage. We are fortunate that our load is not as heavy as the Catholics.  We bring in the baggage of our respective churches. We have off loaded some of the baggage and tradition when we left the Catholic church in a series of reformations and renewal movements. The process goes on.

Coincidentally or providentially or provocatively the lectionary reading for today comes out the first mission of the Apostles and their efforts in developing the Jesus movement. Peter emerged as the leader of the Apostles after the crucifixion of Jesus. They faced the same opposition which was the Jewish religious establishment and Roman political system.They were detained and then warned not to preach and teach. But the Apostles defied them and testified that  “They must obey God rather than any human authority.”

When we look back at the growth and expansion of the Christian movement we are confronted with this question of authority. The councils of the early Christian movement began to define the teaching and formulated the ancient creeds. Then the Bishop of Rome as the most important city in the then known world established the Roman Pontiff
as sole authority and claims that he is the Vicar of Christ. But there were bishops of major cities and those in the Eastern Europe who chose not to submit to Rome. The Great Schism of the one Catholic Church occurred when in 1053 the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople divided between the Latin branch with allegiance to Rome and the Eastern Branch known as the Orthodox with loyalty to its own Patriarch in the different countries in the East. The division remains to this day.

The office of Patriarch Bartholomew in Constantinople released this statement: “His All-Holiness’ decision to travel to Rome for Pope Francis’ installation as Roman bishop is an extraordinary event in the history of Christianity. And it is significant for reasons far beyond its novelty. First and foremost it is a powerful symbolic gesture for the cause of Christian unity. It demonstrates in unprecedented fashion the extent to which the Ecumenical Patriarch considers the relationship with the Roman Catholic Church to be a priority. For their part, members of the Vatican staff have responded to this grand gesture and have arranged for the reading of the Gospel at the installation to be sung in Greek (rather than Latin) in recognition of the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarch has taken this unprecedented step.”

Further schisms in Western Christianity or Rome took place in the Reformation movement of the 16th Century resulting in denominational churches each justifying its formation claiming authority not of the Pope but the Word. Not the Pope tells you so but the Bible tells you so. The claim that the Bible tells you so is used to demonize LGBT today.

Given the different interpretations of Biblical teaching and reading from the same Bible, further splits resulted in the proliferation of denominational independent churches who claim the authority of the Holy Spirit who has revealed to each one of them separately.

Where then is my authority in what I believe? Each one has to make his or her own decision like Peter and John and later Paul, We must obey God rather than man.

The man or human-made religious and political establishment in the time of Jesus’ ministry was led by the religious rulers like the High Priest and the political authorities like Pilate. The collaboration in collecting taxes for the Temple and for Caesar is documented in the Biblical text. The simple farmers in the rural societies were made poor and Jesus set his face to Jerusalem to oppose publicly the religious and political authorities which led to his crucifixion. It was not just a religious disagreement by a political dispute.

Pope Benedict gave up when he found himself confined in the prison of the Vatican. Is it possible for Pope Francis to free himself now like Peter and John and obey God rather than man. The general opinion is that he is unlikely to shake look loose from the powers which hung on traditional teaching all these centuries. At least Pope Francis is showing a new face of the Papacy in his simple and humble lifestyle. More is needed and we can hope for changes.

When we consider FCC let us be aware that we are to be located in the building which carries the address of One Commonwealth. It is highly symbolic and will always remind us of the word commonwealth. As Wikipedia defines it: The English noun commonwealth in the sense meaning “public welfare; general good or advantage” dates from the 15th century. The original phrase “the common-wealth” or “the common weal” (echoed in the modern synonym “public weal”) comes from the old meaning of “wealth,” which is “well-being”, and is itself a loose translation of the Latin res publica (republic). The term literally meant “common well-being.” In the 17th century the definition of “commonwealth” expanded from its original sense of “public welfare” or “commonweal” to mean “a state in which the supreme power is vested in the people; a republic or democratic state.”

Man and nation and even church has the tendency to cater to self-interest, private good. We will be reminded constantly in our new home to be concerned with the good of others and the common good of all.

We have been able to address the welfare of the LGBT who found their way to our home for the past ten years and have felt the welcome and stayed on. There is still the challenge as we face the larger LGBT community in society and seek for their well-being outside. We must be aware that it not be possible to form a mega-church as a few harbour that wish. There are successful independent churches around and we try to emulate them. Some have viewed us to be a weaker version of the megachurch church life and mission. LGBT will always be a minority.

A number of the LGBT who come to FCC have been expelled, rejected and condemned officially by the churches around us – mainline and independent. They no longer feel welcome and do not want to be closeted as they worship in such congregations. They find a religious home in FCC that welcomes them. We have established a safe, secure and increasingly welcome sanctuary. But some feel that they are not spiritually fed and continue to depend upon the dramatic worship and remain closeted. How can one be nourished by a theology and church life which condemn LGBTQ?

The few straight people who come to FCC do not sense the difference except for the fact of the presence and acceptance of the LGBT. The life and mission of the Church is not much different from the churches they belong and they are not convinced to remain too long.

What is essential is to be a open and more willing to doubt as the other lectionary reading in John conveys in the story of the Doubting Apostle Thomas. He wants to be convinced himself and not by hearsay from others and even by the leadership. Each one of us has to make our individual rational decision and act in faith and set ourselves free from the religious imprisonment to obey God rather that human beings.

There is the wider human community in society whose welfare and good we must seek. How different are we from the mainline and independent churches if we put aside the fact that we welcome LGBT? It is being shown even now that denominational congregations in the United States are increasing dramatically in gay-affirming and churches that exclusively minister to LGBT are declining slowly. Statistics show that membership even in charismatic and pentecostal churches are decreasing in recent years. There is the rise of the NONE who are spiritual but not religious. We see that to be true even in FCC. Where are those I have met ten years ago today?

The future for each Christian congregation is to cater to the spiritual needs of all regardless of sexual orientation, race and economic status. We are challenged to do the new thing ten years ago. The further challenge is to grow a distinctive Church different from what we have been used to and see around us. We must be open and ready
to obey God and transform the worship, life and mission of FCC as an community used by God for our Common weal.

FCC must move beyond our narrow religious interests, serve the interests of the LGBTQ community including gay rights. Can we revive our to service to the aged poor years ago in Tanglin Halt and we moving close to them? Can we extend our concern for the issue of poverty. Can we implement our HIV/Aids medication fund to seek out
those who need medicine? Can we extend to  promote health care for all? Can we do more than donate money to migrant workers but deal also with the population issue in the country? The Christian community is strangely silent. But they are very vocal in their anti-gay campaign. I is essential for us to explore more opportunities to serve, to witness and do more.

FCC must demonstrate a better Christian responsibility for the well-being of people. God calls us to be involved in shaping a responsible human and humane community in our midst. This is the Christian love that we proclaim. It is cry for equality –  equal opportunity and equal rights for all of God’s people.

I want to repeat what I mentioned earlier about Pope Francis’ hope and dream. He acknowledged however that it would take “extraordinary Christ-liberated courage” to tackle the challenges presented by the economy, environment and global poverty… Courage is released in a society that is under the authority of God, so that we may become the fully human community of which we all dream.”

Pope John fifty years ago opened the window of the Vatican to allow fresh winds to come in and deal with the mustiness within. Pope Francis today has opened the door of the Roman Basilica to step out to shed light in the world and bring peace with justice. FCC needs to break out of our cave-like existence and go into the open to shape a different community which seeks for common good.

Together in FCC we interact and be open to one another to free ourselves from merely obeying the religious and political authorities and strive to obey God rather than man and to seek for the common good for all of God’s people on earth. Welcome Home for the gay and straight. Create Community of freedom with justice for all regardless
of race, sexual orientation and religion. This is our hope and our vision in a pluralistic world. This is the challenge that the spiritual communities and especially FCC have to face as we begin to make the move to One Commonwealth.