As happens every year, the season of Lent has come around again. This is a time of repentance and renewal, and also a period of fasting, prayer and almsgiving. Lent reminds us to purify our bodies and hearts, strengthen our contact with God, overcome worldly desires and show concern for the poor and needy.
I encourage everyone to put these outstanding, traditional ways of doing penance into practice. This way, we can make a positive response to the call of our Holy Father in this year’s Lenten Message: “You have been buried with him by your baptism; by which, too, you have been raised up with him” (cf. Colossians 2:12). When Easter comes, we will be able to share the joy of the Paschal Mystery with Christ.
As we celebrate the Year of the Laity, everyone naturally asks, “What more good works do we still need to perform, in order to match the pastoral plans promoted by the Diocesan Ad Hoc Committee for the Year of the Laity?”
Many years ago, a friend of mine, a Catholic scholar from the United States of America, told me that the early Church community should be the model for the Church community in subsequent centuries.
Each member possessed three qualities which can be expressed through three Greek words; didache (teaching and doctrine), koinonia (sharing and communion) and diakonia (ministry and service). During this Year of the Laity, I think we should cultivate these three qualities which he mentioned. Let me elaborate on them to you as follows:
The first quality (didache) is teaching and doctrine. After baptism, the early faithful still continued to listen attentively to the apostles’ teaching (Acts 2:42). The doctrine which they received was not abstract theory, but rather the wisdom of God existing within us, the same Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who became incarnate in history, walked the path of self-emptying throughout his life, until he finally died and rose again.
Just as Jesus called his disciples long ago, he likewise summons us today, saying, “Come! Follow me! I will make you fishers of people” (Mark 1:17). After catechesis and baptism, we respond to his call. Our Holy Father, Benedict XVI, likes to quote an image from St. Jerome: We should be like little fish, which the Word of God hauls up and places on the shore, and thus dying to the world, we can see the true light, and live the true life.
Therefore, after baptism, we still need to continue to receive on-going formation provided by the diocesan organisations and parishes, to read the gospel and to pray daily and unceasingly throughout our lives, in order to make ourselves more like Christ day after day, and become more effective witnesses to our faith.
The second quality (koinonia) is sharing and communion. After baptism, we are no longer isolated individuals. Instead, we are members of the body of the Church. Therefore, we must imitate the spirit of sharing of the early disciples, and particularly be concerned about the needs of the poor (Acts 2:45).
Communion means “fellowship in faith, hope and love.” It contains several levels: Communion with God and with Jesus Christ, which is the foundation of our communion; more broadly, it is our communion among members of the Church; and finally it extends to fellowship with the whole world.
Especially during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we feel this and are continually strengthened by it. Thus, the opening sentence of Chapter One of Lumen Gentium, Vatican II’s Dogmatic Constitution on the Church, mentions, “Since Christ is the light of humanity, this holy synod… strongly desires to bring to all people that light of Christ which shines out visibly from the Church … the Church in Christ as a sacrament, that is, a sign and instrument of intimate closeness with God and of mutual unity among the whole human race.”
Therefore, communion among Christians has a solid foundation and a vast objective, and so communion moves outward to encompass the whole human race, and even the universe. Thus we all should actively participate in small communities of faith.
The third quality (diakonia) is ministry and service. The first group of deacons was ordained for service (Acts 6:3-6). I earnestly appeal for more laymen to actively respond to God’s call during this Year of the Laity, and join the Permanent Diaconate, in order to meet the needs of our diocese and parishes.
Besides, Jesus not only called us to serve the multitude; he also set an example in person. At the Last Supper, he tied a towel around his waist and washed the feet of the disciples. He told us, “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for the many” (Matthew 20:28). Finally, he offered his life on the cross, to complete his mission of redeeming the world. Let us implement Jesus’ spirit of service in our daily, ordinary activities.
In history, the number of outstanding lay people and clerics who have followed the example of the early disciples are too numerous to mention. In the lives of Blessed Mother Teresa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and in Pope John Paul II, who will soon be beatified, we can clearly see these three qualities expressed.
Even today, people are moved by the loving service which Mother Teresa gave to the poorest of the poor. Pope John Paul II not only responded to the call of God and followed Jesus closely day and night, but also embodied wisdom for human life and walked along the path of life.
As the holder of the highest office in the Church, he set a personal example by spreading the spirit of communion throughout the Church, to the whole human race, and even to the wider creation.
Before he passed away, even though he was seriously sick, he stood on the balcony and made a great effort to bless the crowd of people who came from all places around the world and gathered in St. Peter’s Square. That was truly a moving scene; he no longer had the strength to speak; but silence spoke louder than words. He spent the last remaining bit of strength in his life to service and gave witness to God’s love.
My brothers and sisters, let us take a firm hold of Lent, as a gift from God. In addition to practicing the traditional ways of advancing in virtue, let us also vigorously follow the example of the early disciples and cultivate these three Christian qualities in ourselves.
In other words, let us strengthen our spiritual lives, expand our attitude and vision for communion, and give witness to the gospel, so that our prayers, formation and efforts of evangelisation during the Year of the Laity will bear abundant fruit.
+John Tong Bishop of Hong Kong 9 March 2011 Ash Wednesday