Honest Thomas – some thoughts about today’s saint

Today we celebrate the feast of St. Thomas the Apostle, best known as Doubting Thomas. The passage from John 20, in which Jesus appears after His death on the cross, but Thomas happens to be absent is well known. Thomas refuses to believe what he didn’t see for himself, only to be corrected by the Lord when He appears again and shows His wounds to Thomas, even inviting him to place his hand in the wound in His side.

“You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20:29).

thomasRich as this passage from the Gospels is, and it teaches us much about the nature of faith, there is more to St. Thomas than this. In the Bible, he appears in all four Gospels, as well as in the Acts of the Apostles. Matthew (10:3), Mark (3:18) and Luke (6:15) first list him among the Apostles called by Jesus, while John first mentions him in the story of the death of Lazarus, where Thomas seems a bit defeatist. Upon hearing Jesus’ decision to go to Bethany, in the land of the Jews who had earlier tried to kill Jesus, he says, “Let us also go to die with him”  (John 11:16). Still, it indicates a willingness on Thomas’ part to follow Jesus whatever the consequences, even if death is one. Not exactly the sign of a doubting follower.

Later in the Gospel of John, we see another side to Thomas: the questioning follower, the man trying to understand. As Jesus announces His return to the Father, telling the apostles that they know where He is going and how to get there, Thomas replies, “Lord, we do not know where you are going, so how can we know the way?” (John 14:5). This prompts Jesus to teach him – and us – that He is the Way, the Truth and the Life. Thomas comes across as honest and straightforward, not afraid to ask about what he doesn’t understand. The next time we come across him is in the aforementioned passage of the Lord’s appearance in his absence. Thomas doubts, is still as honest and straightforward as ever, but not stubborn: he accepts what the Lord teaches him and professes his faith in his Lord and God.

Thomas appears once more among the disciples to whom Jesus appears at the Sea of Tiberias (John 21;2), but the Evangelist does not tell us any details about what Thomas may have said or done. But he did witness Jesus giving Peter the task to look after His sheep. After the Lord’s Ascension, Thomas remains with the other disciples, as Acts 1:13 tells us, part of the young and rapidly growing Church.

That’s all the Bible tells us about St. Thomas, but it’s enough to slightly correct the image we have of him as a doubter. It would be more accurate to see him as a very honest man, to himself and to others. He is not afraid to ask questions, or even to ask others to be more clear, but also does not hesitate to recognise his own errors and correct them.

Several post-Biblical sources tell of Thomas travelling to India to preach the Gospel there. Indeed, south India is home to the St. Thomas Christians, who can be traced back to the 2nd or 3rd century. The trip from the Holy Land to India would at least have been possible in the first century, as trade relations existed between the subcontinent and the Roman Empire. It is hard to tell what is true and what is apocryphal in this, but the fact remains that Thomas is strongly connected to Southern Asia, and Christian communities appeared very early in India. A strong-willed follower of Jesus may well have taken it upon himself to undertake such a perilous and uncertain mission to remote parts, all to spread the Gospel and enkindle the faith, serving the Lord as he did from the moment he was first called.

Ad Limina Thursday: Legislation and Religious, Saints and Popes, and a Sinterklaas surprise

With the ad limina officially over (although one meeting has been moved to today for those bishops remaining in Rome), it’s time to take a look back at what took place on Thursday. Friday activities will follow in due course.

Thursday morning was filled with the usual meetings, this time to the Pontifical Council for Legislative Texts and the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life (the Congregation for Religious, in sort). Bishop Hendriks, in his daily blog, reports that these were “not boring, despite what some might think”. The meeting with Cardinal Coccopalmerio at the Pontifical Council, the bishop writes, was very fruitful and revealed that many cases of church closings and the merger of parishes, all very current affairs in the Dutch Church, need further study.

Not all bishops attended these meetings, as some were at the Pontifical Council for Culture. Bishop Gerard de Korte, one of these, expressed specific admiration for Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, the Council’s president, and his project of the Courtyard of the Gentiles, which aims to foster dialogue between faithful and non-faithful.

cappuccino break ad liminaIn the afternoon, after a lunch and cappuccino break (at left), Cardinal Angelo Amato received the bishops at the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints (pictured below), a meeting with some consequences for current Dutch causes. Top of the list were the martyrs of Alkmaar, murdered for the faith in 1572, and Fr. Johannes Roothaan, the second founder of the Jesuit Order. Both causes were dormant for decades, but may now become active again.

causes of saints meeting ad liminaBishop Frans Wiertz presented Dutch-born Bishop Frans Schraven as a possible patron saint for victims of sexual abuse. The case of Bishop Schraven, killed in China by Japanese soldiers in 1931 for not submitting the women and girls under his protection to be used as sex slaves, was opened earlier this year.

Mass on Thursday was offered at the church of the German College in Rome, the Santa Maria dell’Anima, which is also home to the grave of the only Dutch pope, Pope Adrian VI. Bishop Antoon Hurkmans was the homilist, and he spoke, among other things, about the mystery of the Church:

“The Church is a mystery because, although she is human, she is especially divine. We are the people of God. It is easy to recognise the human and the too human in the Church. The divine is harder to see, and can’t be caught in questionnaires. This depends on faith. In Jesus the human and the divine go together harmoniously. God is visible in the power of His words, in the signs He gives. The Apostle Thomas confesses, when He sees the signs of His wounds upon seeing Christ: “My Lord and My God”.

On another level, the Church carries God. God calls His people together. He is present in the faithful, in Holy Scripture, in the Sacraments, among others in men whom God calls to make Christ present in the Church as priests.”

Bishop Hurkmans also spoke about those who were the first to be called, the Apostles.

“Consider Peter. He is among us in his successor, Pope Francis. In a unique way he calls us to faith and gives hope to many. He speaks about Gods mercy. He touches, embraces, the hurt. His aim is to return to the Church the glory of her divine soul. He emphasises the mission of he Church: to restore hurt people in Christ. He explains, as we heard in the first reading, that there is no place in Gods plan for high fortresses. For pride, arrogance, selfish wealth. In the end times the gates of heaven will be opened for the just nation who remained loyal to God. Every Pope presents heavenly Jerusalem to the world. May our faith remain standing amid the storms and danger which leave destructive traces in Church and world. To continue expecting everything from God, in humility and simplicity.

hurkmans ad limina

He then likened the current Pope to his predecessor, Pope Adrian VI, who saw his own attempts to reform the Church stopped by an early death. “Adrian, a simple, humble Apostle who gave Christ a central place in the concrete life of the Church”.

“Brothers, brothers and sisters, in our time marked by a cultural break, Popes are part of a Church and world marked by secularisation, by a gap between rich and poor, by the need to clear the past, by major ethical questions because of the strides of science and digital means. There is so much around us. Today, Jesus calls us, as we heard in the Gospel, to continue searching for the basis. Christ continues inviting us to place ourselves under God, to do His will. Christ leads. He is the way, the truth and the life. It is Advent. Christ is coming among us. Let us, following the example of Peter, Adrian and our Pope Francis, make the mystery of the Church visible. By a simple and poor life. By meeting our neighbours one by one and come together with them around Christ. He comes to us, let us go to Him in gratitude. From our meeting with Him the reform that our time needs will flower. May God reign in our hearts. Amen.”

Finally, the bishops did not let the eve of the feast of St. Nicholas go by unnoticed, as Bishop Hurkmans surprised them all with a little present from the saint. “They can say a lot about bishops, but they all worked very hard,” he said as the reason for the presents. “Sinterklaas has asked me to respond to that and be his Zwarte Piet,”the bishop joked. “I have made a reminder to Pope Francis and Rome, and I have a print on which I wrote: “Ad Limina 2013. It is Francis! Faith, hope and love” with ‘hope’ underlined twice.”

Fr. Roderick Vonhögen made the video below for RKK. It is delightful to see our bishops in lighthearted moments like these.

Photo credit: [1] [2] Bishop Jan Hendriks, [3] Ramon Mangold

After the Maronites and the Ukrainians, a new chief shepherd for the Syro-Malabarese

It seems that 2011 is shaping up to be the year in which the eastern churches united to Rome are picking new major archbishops and patriarchs (which, I assume, sounds like bad news for those men who are still in good health or relatively young), for, after the Maronite Church elected Bechara Pierre Raï as their patriarch in March and the Ukrainian Church picked Sviatoslav Shevchuk as major archbishop very shortly after that, it is now the Syro-Malabarese Church of southern India to get a new chief shepherd.

The Syro-Malabarese Church is a church with its own rite and culture in union with Rome. Its heartland is the southern Indian state of Kerala and it traces its origins to the evangelisation efforts of Saint Thomas the Apostle, who, tradition says, travelled to India after the resurrection of the Lord to spread the good news there.

The Syro-Malabarese Church has one major archdiocese (of which more below), four regular archdioceses and twenty-four dioceses (twenty-three in India and one in the United States). There are also four religious orders. The Major Archdiocese of Ernakulam-Angamaly has pride of place among these, and on 1 April of this year it lost its major archbishop, Cardinal Varkey Vithayathil. After his death the bishops of the church came together in conclave to elect a successor and, as is customary for the eastern churches in union with Rome, it is up to the pope to confirm the election. Pope Benedict XVI did not hesitate in doing so and yesterday Major Archbishop George Alencherry was confirmed as the new head of the Syro-Malabarese Church.

Major Archbishop Alencherry is 66 and before his election he was the bishop of the Diocese of Thuckalay on India’s far southern tip, a position he had held since 1996. Mar Alencherry has been a priest since 1972.

The website of the archdiocese, linked above, announces that Mar Alencherry will be installed next Sunday, the 29th. The same website also offers a profile of the new head of the 3.6 million Syro-Malabarese Catholics.

St. Thomas Sunday

Christ and Saint Thomas (1467-1483), by Andrea del Verrocchio in Florence

Today we hear the Gospel about St. Thomas who refuses to believe in the Resurrection until he has seen the evidence. Only when Jesus appears to the Apostles and invites Thomas to lay his hand in His side and see and feel His wounds, does Thomas believe. He accepts the full truth of the Risen Lord with a simple but heartfelt “My Lord and my God!” (John 20: 28)

Jesus gently rebukes him and says a seemingly simple line about the nature of Christian belief: “You believe because you can see me. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 20: 29).

That final line gives a statement about the value of belief. It is easy for us to believe in the existence of, say, a table, a cat, or our neighbour. We can see them, touch them, and, in the case of the neighbour, speak to them and expect an answer. This is a very basic notion of belief; I see so I acknowledge the existence of what I’m seeing. But basic as it is, it dictates much of our daily life. After all, we must know that what we see and wish to interact with is truly there.

But the notion of belief that Christ employs is different. The acknowledgement of the reality of existence of what we believe in – God, Christ, the Resurrection – is an inseparable part of that, but there is more. “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” presupposes a sense of trust. We have not seen it, but we rely on the knowledge of others to belief in the reality of something.

Faith requires such a notion. It is not enough to simply say, “Oh, I’ll accept that God exists”. That;s not enough, because it says nothing about the relationship between us and Him. But including trust and faith into our sense of belief does, or at least it makes a start.

Even when we say that we have faith in somebody, indicates that we trust that that person is capable of something, that he or she can do good, or whatever. It is the same with our faith in God. Based on what we have learned about Him, through Scripture, the Tradition of His Church and the teachings of writers and theologians throughout the ages, we have faith in Him: we trust that he is capable of our salvation.

We have not seen Him, but that makes this faith more pure: the trust we place in Him is not a human faith. It transcends it, just like Christ far transcended His human nature.

Blessed is he who is able to transcend his human nature and put his faith in Who he has not yet seen.