Picture above: looking from the monastery on Skellig Michael towards Little Skellig.
Fr Martin Loftus, SDB
Fr Martin Loftus, SDB
Sunday, 28th April 2019: "Doubters like Thomas"
“Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands and put my finger in the mark of the nail...I will not believe.” Jn. 20:19 – 29.
I wonder, did you ever meet the likes of Thomas, as we heard in today’s Gospel story? He is not called “Doubting Thomas” for nothing, you know, for he seems to be a born pessimist. I mean, if YOU knew a group of friends closely for three years, as Thomas did, and every one of them tells you about something dramatic that happened, which they ALL saw, would you believe them? I think you would! His friends had all seen the apparition of Jesus. Was it possible they were all deluded? No! Nor is it one bit likely that they had a few drinks and they all fell asleep, and then they all had the same dream! I’d say the only conclusion to draw is that these people were wide awake all right and that the Risen Lord did indeed come among them. But Thomas throws cold water on the whole thing! He is a born pessimist! If you were fishing with him, and felt a tug on the line, and shouted excitedly: “Thomas, I think I’m on to something here!”, he’d be sure to say: “I bet it’s only an old bicycle wheel, or an old boot!”
Today, However, we are not giving out about Thomas. Today we are praising him, for several things. First, for his being a bit of a sceptic, like the rest of us; and for his reinforcing our faith and for further dispelling our doubt. For Thomas has enabled us, vicariously, to put our fingers into the holes, and our hand into the Lord’s side. You see, Thomas needs the visual. He needs the tactile. He needs to see and touch for himself. He needs a bit of proof!
There’s a side of us that needs that too, especially in these faith-challenging times. I think that we allwalk through life today in 2019 with doubt on one arm, and faith on the other.
When I was a young lad, I was taught to have a strong faith – and have nothing to do with doubt But, as time went on, successive breakthroughs in scientific understanding began to eat away at my religious certainty and also with the changes that came in Church teaching. Evolution proved the world was billions of years old; those who ate meat on Friday were not hell-bound; Limbo, like St. Christopher, slipped out of sight; not all priests are holy and, in fact, a few are criminals; and some teachers are teaching religion to children in school but don’t really believe in it themselves.
But I think that it is in that word “believe” that our trouble lies. The word “believe” comes from an old German word originally meaning “to commit to”. To believe in Jesus meant to commit to Him and his teaching as a way of life. In fact, in its early years, Christianity was referred to as “the Way”- a way of living as Jesus taught and lived. It was later, when heresies came, that the word “believe” came to mean the acceptance of ‘intellectual’ beliefs, and the conforming to institutional teaching. So, by this standard, the Corleones, of The Godfather fame, were good Catholics because they were believers. They believed every article of the Creed, every precept of the Church - while living a murderous life-style! They never accepted that ‘belief’ was about commitment and practice.
And that is why you and I are here this morning – because, you and I, we are part of what I call the “Easter Church”. By that I mean the ‘everyday’ Church, the ‘grass-roots Church’, the ‘two-thousand-year-old-Church’ that continues to display daily heroism, with deeds of love, forgiveness, charity and compassion in the name of the Risen Saviour - outside the radar of the media. Among those quiet heroes are the people who taught us to read and write, and how to be honest and how to say our prayers,
The other people in our history would also include Francis of Assisi; a wife and widow called Catherine of Sienna; a soldier named Ignatius of Loyola; an archbishop called Romero who spoke out in favour of the poor in San Salvador and was murdered while saying Mass; and Matt Talbot who faced down his alcoholism. This is the Church that sent missionaries to the Congo, toiling in obscurity to feed and educate children. This is the Church of that Brazilian priest fighting disease. This is the Church of the Maryknoll Sisters in Central America; and of the Cabrini Sisters and our own Fr. Martin McCormack visiting and helping AIDS victims and orphans in Swaziland.
Then there are the 19 million new people who entered the ‘Easter Church’ last year. There are the millions who come to Mass every weekend; the massive crowds that attend Ash Wednesday, Christmas and Easter services. I could go on but listen to what Nicholas Kristof said recently in his Editorial in the New York Times “In my travels round the world, I encounter two Catholic Churches – one is the rigid all-male hierarchy that seems out of touch. Yet, there’s another Catholic Church as well, one I admire intensely. This is the grass-roots Catholic Church that does far more good in the world than it gets credit for. This is the Church that supports extraordinary aid organizations like Catholic Relief Services and Caritas, saving lives every day, and that operates superb schools that provide needy children with a way out of poverty.” In fact, all around our own country, the churches this Easter were much fuller than in recent years. Remarkably, though many may be sad, and angry, and disgusted by the scandal of child abuse, and the Magdalene institutions, and mother and baby homes revelations, yet the people keep believing in Jesus and in “the Way”. For their faith is not in any priest or nun or bishop, but in Jesus.
I was talking to Fr. Joe Harrington in his room in Pallaskenry well before he died, and he was telling me about a great man of decades ago, Frank Sheed, father, author and theologian. Fr Joe quoted Frank Sheed’s saying: “We are not baptised into the hierarchy; we do not receive the Cardinals sacramentally; we will not spend an eternity in the beatific vision of the Pope. No, NO! Christ is the point. Our belief and our faith is in Jesus!!” Frank Sheed had it right. And that’s why WE are here this morning with Thomas, the Doubter. For with our modern, sceptical mind-set, and with the change of religious climate from one of support to one of hostility and ridicule, it is far more difficult to have faith now! There is a pervasive secular spirit about today, which makes it harder to be a believer, even more so to be a public believer! But Thomas goes ahead of us this morning and he gives us one of the shortest, loveliest and most belief-filled prayers in all of scripture: “My Lord, and my God!”
I think the people of God have an instinctive appreciation of this truth: that NO one – no priest - no bishop - can erase the face of Christ or undo his mission. Belief like Thomas’s is still amazing, for it is stronger than any scandal or doubt. And it gives us hope, which is deeper than despair. Jesus is simply too strong, too “risen” to be undone again! And I believe that people like yourselves have the same unspoken belief as Thomas, and that, as Frank Sheed said, Christ is the point. It is to our credit that, though hurt and wounded as we are by scandal and doubt, we can still come here this morning to gather round the Risen Jesus.
May God bless you and your family, and strengthen all of us in our belief. As I end this homily with Thomas’s prayer “My Lord and my God”, please, let us now say the same prayer together with Thomas: “My Lord, and my God.”