Sunday, November 8, 2009

Prayers this week: Let my prayer come before you, Lord; listen, and answer me. (Psalm 87:3)

God of power and mercy, protect us from all harm. Give us freedom of spirit and health in mind and body to do your work on earth. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever.

Blessed John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308)

A humble man, John Duns Scotus has been one of the most influential Franciscans through the centuries. Born at Duns in the county of Berwick, Scotland, John was descended from a wealthy farming family. In later years he was identified as John Duns Scotus to indicate the land of his birth; Scotia is the Latin name for Scotland. John received the habit of the Friars Minor at Dumfries, where his uncle Elias Duns was superior. After novitiate John studied at Oxford and Paris and was ordained in 1291. More studies in Paris followed until 1297, when he returned to lecture at Oxford and Cambridge. Four years later he returned to Paris to teach and complete the requirements for the doctorate. In an age when many people adopted whole systems of thought without qualification, John pointed out the richness of the Augustinian-Franciscan tradition, appreciated the wisdom of Aquinas, Aristotle and the Muslim philosophers—and still managed to be an independent thinker. That quality was proven in 1303 when King Philip the Fair tried to enlist the University of Paris on his side in a dispute with Pope Boniface VIII. John Duns Scotus dissented and was given three days to leave France. In Scotus’s time, some philosophers held that people are basically determined by forces outside themselves. Free will is an illusion, they argued. An ever practical man, Scotus said that if he started beating someone who denied free will, the person would immediately tell him to stop. But if Scotus didn’t really have a free will, how could he stop? John had a knack for finding illustrations his students could remember! After a short stay in Oxford he returned to Paris, where he received the doctorate in 1305. He continued teaching there and in 1307 so ably defended the Immaculate Conception of Mary that the university officially adopted his position. That same year the minister general assigned him to the Franciscan school in Cologne where John died in 1308. He is buried in the Franciscan church near the famous Cologne cathedral. Drawing on the work of John Duns Scotus, Pope Pius IX solemnly defined the Immaculate Conception of Mary in 1854. John Duns Scotus, the "Subtle Doctor," was beatified in 1993.

Father Charles Balic, O.F.M., the foremost 20th-century authority on Scotus, has written: "The whole of Scotus's theology is dominated by the notion of love. The characteristic note of this love is its absolute freedom. As love becomes more perfect and intense, freedom becomes more noble and integral both in God and in man" (New Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 4, p. 1105). Intelligence hardly guarantees holiness. But John Duns Scotus was not only brilliant, he was also humble and prayerful—the exact combination St. Francis wanted in any friar who studied. In a day when French nationalism threatened the rights of the pope, Scotus sided with the papacy and paid the price. He also defended human freedom against those who would compromise it by determinism. Ideas are important. John Duns Scotus placed his best thinking at the service of the human family and of the Church.

The Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ according to Saint Mark 12.38-44)

As he taught, Jesus said, Watch out for the teachers of the law. They like to walk around in flowing robes and be greeted in the market-places, and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honour at banquets. They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely. Jesus sat down opposite the place where the offerings were put and watched the crowd putting their money into the temple treasury. Many rich people threw in large amounts. But a poor widow came and put in two very small copper coins, worth only a fraction of a penny. Calling his disciples to him, Jesus said, I tell you the truth, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything— all she had to live on.

Loving the poor
(Holmily by Fr. E.J. Tyler)

Sir David Attenborough, the famous producer of natural history documentaries, once declared himself to be an agnostic. He did not know if there is a God. When asked why his profound familiarity with the wonderful world of nature did not lead him to the Author of nature, he pointed to the cruelty he saw everywhere in nature. The helpless are attacked and devoured. There is ruthless cruelty by the strong over the weak. Nature does not reflect mercy to the needy - which is what we expect of God. Now, setting aside the question of how that pattern in nature is to be interpreted, we would surely have to allow that a similar impression could be gained from the human scene. While there have been wonderful exceptions, is not neglect and oppression of the needy and the poor an ingrained feature of much of human history?

Prescinding from the dictates of Judaeo-Christian revelation, consider a few examples. India is arguably the most religious nation in the world. The religious imagination pervades that vast and teeming people, illustrating the claim that man is, above all, a religious being by nature. He yearns for the Transcendent, the Ultimate, and wishes to be one with it. But look at India’s abominable caste system and the abiding treatment of its Untouchables! The elimination of this despicable attitude to the poorest has proved to be an enormous challenge. All through history the afflicted have been neglected. For long centuries, slavery - accompanied by great cruelty to slaves - has marred civilization and it has been tolerated by religious societies, including even Christian. In the modern era, millions of the most helpless are routinely snuffed out of their struggle for life by abortion, and this cruelty is sanctioned by legislation. The list could go on and on. The point I am making here is that while man may be instinctively religious, he can be instinctively cruel and neglectful of the poor. If man does not check himself by reference to his higher moral instincts, he will not love the poor but rather will be deeply irritated by them. Further, he will even tend to exploit the poor.

Man’s religious life tends to proceed on a sphere distinct from concern for the poor. By nature man longs for the God who is beyond, while tending to neglect the poor man who is right here. In revealed religion, this absolutely will not do. When Cain killed his brother Abel, he incurred the wrath of God. When Moses received the Ten Commandments on Sinai, it was discovered that the first three governed our relations with God, while the remaining seven, our relations with man. The prophets inveighed against a religion of splendid ritual and sacrifices in the midst of a blithe oppression of the poor. I hate such sacrifices, Yahweh God said. To be religious, one had also to be deeply concerned for the poor. Jesus Christ, the image of the unseen God, showed that God identifies with the poor. In his ministry our Lord loved the poor, understanding by this term the person in genuine need. He was profoundly merciful. He saw the widow of Nain and, feeling profoundly sorry for her, raised her son to life. He responded to need everywhere, pointing withal to the greatest misery of all, the misery of sin. It was this pitiable condition which he had come to do away with. Christ showed the unlimited love of God for the one who is poor. In our Gospel today (Mark 12: 38-44) our Lord condemns the experts in the law for, among other things, their lack of concern for the poor. “They devour widows' houses and for a show make lengthy prayers. Such men will be punished most severely.” He notices with a special love the poor and suffering individual. He stopped in the crowd when the poor woman touched his cloak for a healing. He wanted to have contact with her. In our Gospel today he sees the poor widow putting in to the Treasury all she had to live on. He holds her up for imitation. Christ loved the poor, and he requires of his disciples that they love the poor. At the Last Judgment (Matthew 25:40) he will say to every man and woman that whatever we have done to the least person, has been done to him.

Love for the poor must distinguish the Christian life, and the saints have been shining examples of this Christian spirit. The very phrase, “being very Christian,” has come to mean being very concerned for the needy. Love for the poor is manifested on a variety of fronts, in the struggle against material poverty and also against the many forms of cultural, moral and religious poverty. The spiritual and corporal works of mercy and the numerous charitable institutions of the centuries all show the preferential love for the poor which characterizes the spirit of Christ and his disciples. Let us then pray for the grace to love the poor and to show God’s mercy towards them.

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