Happiness is Service: Service is Happiness
It is a special gift to be with you on the occasion of the centenary of your founding. I know well the roles played by the earliest members of the institute in making Catholicism a reality in Nagpur , housing members of religious communities who wished to establish themselves here, providing funds to them for such undertakings, and a variety of other services to the people of the city itself. I know, too, that many of you continue in that kind of loving service.
It is important to remember, however, that any anniversary is not just a time for looking back but is a special time for looking forward, for charting new and renewed courses to make the association alive and thriving. I thought about this especially when I reflected on your little ditty about keeping the rules through tempest and tide. I am assuming that this means not just the constitution of your Institute but also the “rules” of Catholic living and it is on those that I wish to reflect with you this evening.
If I were to ask many of you what those rules are, you would likely say, “The Ten Commandments”. You would be partially right. One other time when I offered a similar reflection in a different set of circumstances one member of the audience said, “You mean there’s more? Bishop, I have a hard enough time keeping the Ten Commandments to add something else to them!” But yes, there is more. They grow out of the Commandments, certainly, but they are guidelines that we learned as the Eight Beatitudes, today most scholars say there are actually nine, and the Spiritual and Corporal Works of Mercy which flow from these beatitudes.
Lest you think I am going to give you a course in moral theology, I assure you I am not. What I want to do for you and with you is to share the better understanding that we now have of the Beatitudes then when you and I memorized them as children, probably for our First Holy Communion or Confirmation. In the past fifty years we have made enormous strides in understanding Jesus in his time and his place and applying that spirit to our time and our place.
I want to begin by suggesting to you that scholars today suggest we should replace the word “blessed” with “happy” or “joyful”. In the Beatitudes Jesus calls us to happiness and to joy, right here, right now, and shows us how to be happy and how to be joyful. The key to joy and happiness is in loving service, described well in your motto. Jesus tells us that our happiness consists in loving, in loving service in terms of ourselves and of others. This is holiness in Jesus’ understanding.
Jesus does NOT support sadness, poverty, or suffering. He does anything but. We know now that the bulk of his preaching was to the most destitute of his people, people who had not even a tiny parcel of land on which to grow food enough for their families, people who were at the beck and call of their political and religious superiors. Jesus stood for freedom, justice, peace, compassion, and approachability. If we say we follow him, so must we.
It is highly unlikely that this sermon was given all at once. It is probably a compilation on the part of Matthew and Luke of all that Jesus was about in the course of his time among us. Threads of these teachings are found in all his parables and in what we know of his life.
Let me share with you some insights into how we must interpret these Beatitudes today. One catechist suggests we ought to spell the word “Be-attitudes” to make the point that these are lifestyle stances of the Catholic who understands what his or her life is for.
1. POOR IN SPIRIT. Scholars tell us that the initial rendition of this was “poor”. God is present to the poor in a special way, Jesus said, sharing their life even as Jesus shared their life. Later, poor “in spirit” was added to the language because people realized that the destitute can sometimes be as avaricious as those who have many things. The point is that, rich, middle class or poor, each of us knows something and none of us knows everything. We come to each other in dialogue, to learn from and to learn with each other. We do not “live by bread alone” but none of us can live without any bread at all. This beatitude is a call to mutual interdependence before and with our God or it means nothing at all.
2. THOSE WHO MOURN. If we have never suffered, if we have never felt mental, physical, or spiritual pain, or sometimes all three together, how can we ever understand what others are experiencing, how can we be marked by empathy. Jesus was exceeding empathetic. That did not come out of a vacuum. He wept when he heard of Lazarus’ death. Did that perhaps bring back memories of the death of his beloved Joseph? Did he remember the sadness of his mother on that occasion? Was he reliving a trip to Jerusalem as an adolescent when we are told he probably saw six thousand of his Jewish brothers and sisters, men, women, and children crucified along the pilgrims’ path to Jerusalem ? This was a man who did not shy away from suffering but surely wanted to end anything that afflicted the human spirit because he believed that God wanted the same.
3. THE MEEK. I fear too often an interpretation of this Beatitude is that we are to be doormats. That is not what Jesus was. Doormats don’t get killed. Yes, we are supposed to be tolerant of the quirks of others but not to the point where we allow them to hurt themselves in the process of our acceptance of them. We are called to choose for others and not always for ourselves, but we are not supposed to always choose for others and never for ourselves. There is a novelist Elie Wiesel who once wrote, “She lived her life completely for others and by the haunted looks on their faces you could tell exactly who those others were.”
4. THOSE WHO HUNGER AND THIRST. Jesus was living among those who were literally starving! Eventually he would confront the political and religious establishments of his time about this. He could probably have lived out his life in the Galilee with the other people unhappy with those leaders but he went to Jerusalem and confronted them directly. Jesus refused to accept what was not right. He not only recognized the need for change he determined to do what he could to make those changes happen.
5. THE MERCIFUL. “Always be kind. You never know what others are dealing with.” So goes one modern interpretation of this Beatitude. There is much truth in this and there is no doubt that we need much more gentleness in our world than most of us experience. There is no doubt that we need much more respect for the dignity of others than many of us are prepared to give. But there is a downside to this. If I am always picking up the pieces after others, if I forgive and forgive and forgive without holding them accountable, I am really convincing them of their worthlessness. What I am saying to them is that they really don’t matter. Handouts don’t help in the long run. Jesus called us to lives of charity and justice. And at the heart of justice is accountability.
6. CLEAN OF HEART. “Say what you mean. Mean what you say. Do what you say you will do. Don’t waffle.” This Beatitude calls us to a single-minded dedication to leave the world and all its people better for our having been in it. We are called to personal and corporate integrity and honour.
7. PEACEMAKERS. We must literally “make peace” if we understand what this call is about. It is not going to happen without our active commitment to and desire for conciliation and reconciliation. It means that we do not hold grudges. We do not let disagreements fester. It means that we are committed to win-win situations as those who work in conflict resolution today call them. It means speaking out against any and every kind of injustice, working to bring to an end anything that oppresses the human spirit. It means that every caste, creed, and community in our country must be taken seriously and we must work toward their sustainable, integral human development.
8. PERSECUTION. Now and again we add to the list of martyrs in our Catholic community. Just recently our papers carried the story of the seventy-year-old priest killed for his attempts at serving the poorest of our poor. We know of nuns who have been raped and laity who have been fired because they would not participate in the corruption that has become a way of life in so many of the professions. We are called to take a stand for what is right despite any and every pressure even pressure from those closest to us to cease and desist on the basis of potential bad health or a damaged reputation or some other perceived harm to our person. It was Jesus himself who reminded us that living his way would often set parents against children and brother and sister against each other.
9. WILLINGNESS TO SUFFER. We are not called to be sado-masochists. We are called to end anything and everything that oppresses the human spirit. We are called to work toward the health of body, mind, and spirit of any and every human being, and indeed, the well being of all creation. But we are also not supposed to shy away from the suffering that this kind of involvement will likely cause us.
Are we asked to do the impossible? Yes and no. Jesus tells us that happiness, joy, wholeness which is holiness is impossible when we are bound by the shackles of hate, misunderstanding, prejudice and distrust. We are called to change these attitudes day in and day out and with God’s help that conversion is possible. We need to look at our choices and especially at all our negative patterns of behaviour and root out those ways of acting that we take for granted which are in any way harming ourselves and/or our neighbours.
It is simple but it is not easy. With God and God’s Christ it is possible, if we believe it to be. I leave you with this prayer.
O God, our Friend and Lover, we know the path that leads to happiness and holiness. Sometimes we take shortcuts and we lose our way. Sometimes we get turned in wrong directions especially when we follow our own selfish desires or those of our particular caste, creed, and community. Fill us with courage and truth so that the Jesus way of life is always and all ways ours. In your image and likeness may we live compassionate and just lives in our time and place as Jesus did in his. In that service is our happiness. May our happiness be in that service. Amen.