Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Celebrating What Makes Us Tick

Wake Mass For Fr. Antoni Ponnudurai SJ
Memorial of St. Pius of Pietrelcina

Readings: Ezra 9:5-9; Tobit 13:2,4,6-8; Luke 9:1-6
Picture: cc r. nial bradshaw

Sisters and brothers, do you ever wonder what it is that makes something tick? For example, many of us own a smartphone. A powerful modern device that enables us to do many amazing things. Such as communicate instantly with many people. Even if they happen to be many miles away. Take beautiful photographs. And share them with those same faraway friends. Instantly. Amuse ourselves when we’re bored. By playing games. Or watching videos. Or reading an e-book. Figure out where exactly we are when we’re lost. Where we need to go. And how exactly to get there. Still, all this is only a fraction of the many things that a smartphone can do. We know this. Many of us experience it everyday. We know what a phone can do. But how many of us know, or even bother to ask, how the phone is able to do the wonderful things that it does? What exactly it is that makes it tick.

I’m not sure, but I think, very often, when we do pay attention to something, we focus more on what it does. Not so much on how it is able to do it. What makes it tick. And if this is true of gadgets, perhaps it’s even more true of the people around us. When we do take the trouble to notice them. When we don’t take them for granted. We often focus more on what they do. On their performance. But not so much on what makes them tick.

And this can happen even when we gather to remember someone who has died. We say we come together to celebrate the person’s life. To remember who the person was. And we usually do this by recalling the different things the person did. Especially the more memorable, the more remarkable, things. All this is good. And true. And, of course, very important. 

For example, as we gather here tonight, it is right and good for us to remember all that Fr. Ponnudurai means to us. All the things that he did for us. In each of our lives. And some of these are truly remarkable things. Personally, I remember him for four things. Which can be summed up in four words. Generosity and guts. Gentleness and glue.

I first got to know Fr. Ponnudurai when I was still an undergraduate in a local university. One year, as a member of the Legion of Mary, I was tasked to organise an RCIA process on campus. The first challenge was to find someone willing and able to facilitate. Everyone else was busy. But Fr. Ponnudurai obliged. Every week, for as long as the RCIA lasted, he came to the university to help lead people into the faith. In the years after I entered the Society of Jesus, I would have occasion to witness many more examples of Father’s generosity. He was always ready to help. Always ready to do what the disciples are asked to do in the gospel today. To go from village to village proclaiming the Good News and healing everywhere.

The second thing I remember about Father is his guts. His steely determination. Which sometimes could come across as stubbornness. Those who know him even a little, will know what I’m talking about. Once Father set his mind on something, little could deflect him from his purpose. Perhaps one good example of this was how he used to insist on making his daily hospital visits. Often by limping on his bad leg all the way down from Kingsmead Hall to the bus-stop along Farrer Road.

And yet, for all his toughness and firmness of resolve, Father also had a gentleness about him. A softer side that was experienced especially by those who were on the receiving end of his ministry. I myself experienced this tenderness of Father’s first hand. Especially when I used to ask him to hear my confession. And also from witnessing how he encouraged and consoled my parents, when my father was stricken with terminal cancer.

The last quality is something that I noticed only in the last few days. As Father lay in his hospital bed at NUH. I must apologise to Father’s family if my observations are wrong or inappropriate. But it seems to me that Father acted as a kind of glue that held his family together. I saw this from the way everyone rallied around him. It was a moving and an amazing sight.

Truly, sisters and brothers, Fr. Ponnudurai lived a remarkable life. I’ve only talked about a very few things that impressed me. Others will no doubt have their own stories and impressions to share. But all these are only some of the things that Fr. Ponnudurai did. And although it’s important that we remember them, and celebrate them, we don’t really have to be Christians to do this. Even atheists do the same, don’t they? Even people with no religion gather to celebrate the deeds of their loved ones.

What sets apart a Christian gathering like this is the concern to focus not just on the things that our dearly departed has done. As remarkable as they may be. But even more on what it was that made him or her tick. For, as Christians, we believe that what makes our beloved dead tick is nothing less than the grace of God. The powerful yet gentle presence of the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.

And, quite coincidentally, our Mass readings help us to do just that. In the first reading, we find the scribe Ezra praying. And, in his prayer, Ezra talks about two things that give him the motivation to do what he is doing. Two things that make him tick. The first of these is a healthy dose of guilt. Of sorrow for sin. Not just his own personal sin. But the sin of the whole people. My God, I am ashamed, I blush to lift my face to you, my God. For our crimes have increased. Ezra knows that the people deserve to be punished for their sins. And yet, what amazes him is that God chooses not to punish, but to show mercy. To set them free from Exile. We are slaves; but God has not forgotten us in our slavery. And so Ezra is moved with gratitude. Guilt and gratitude. Two sides of a single grace. The same grace that St. Ignatius of Loyola invites retreatants to beg God for in the First Week of the Long Retreat.

It is on this foundational grace–this combination of guilt and gratitude–that a second grace is built. The same grace that Jesus offers to his disciples in the gospel. Here we’re told that Jesus calls his disciples to him. Gives them authority to preach and to heal. And then he sends them out. To do the very things that Jesus himself was sent to do. This is what motivates them. The experience of being called and empowered, and sent out to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Again, this too is a grace from the Long Retreat. Something that the retreatant prays for in the Second Week.

Guilt and Gratitude. Call and Mission. These are the things that motivate Christians to do what they do. These are the things that we gather to celebrate. The power of grace at work in each and in all of us. Moving us to continue doing remarkable things. Loving things. Merciful things. Healing things. Selflessly benefitting others. For the Father. Through the Son. In the Holy Spirit.

My dear friends, above all, what we gather to celebrate is the grace of God at work in the life of our beloved Father Ponnudurai. This is what moved him to do the things he did. This is what made him tick. But what about us? What remarkable things are we being moved to do? What is it that makes us tick today?

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