Sunday, 7 May 2017

Easter Week 4 Sunday (Year A)

Readings: Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Psalm 22(23); 1 Peter 2:20b-25; John 10:1-10

In the summer holidays of 1270, Thomas Aquinas finally got round to answering a query he had received a few months earlier from James of Tonengo. The two had become friends at Orvieto some years earlier when James was a chaplain at the papal court there and Thomas was the lector or teacher at the Dominican priory. Thomas had since returned to Paris and James had left the papal service and was now a canon of the diocese of Vercelli.

James’s question to Thomas was about the morality of casting lots as a way of making decisions about important matters, specifically about appointments to high office in the Church. The summer of 1270 marked the midpoint of the longest interregnum in the history of the papacy. Pope Clement IV had died in November 1268 but his successor, Gregory X, was not elected until almost three years later, his pontificate beginning in September 1271. In fact it was this three-year vacancy that led Gregory X, when he was elected, to institute the conclave as we now know it. The three-year delay had disturbed and unsettled everybody, leading the civil authorities at Viterbo firstly to lock the cardinals in, then to take the roof off the church where they were meeting, and finally to starve them slowly until they reached a decision.

James’s question to Thomas about casting lots as a way of making decisions was related to this interregnum. It was not a question about a breakthrough in the conclave itself, however, but about the appointment of a bishop in Vercelli. The canons were unable to agree who it should be, there was no Pope and would not be a Pope for a further 15 months, and so James is wondering about the option of casting lots as a way of coming to a decision. It might even have been thought that this would be a way of leaving more space for the Holy Spirit to make his mind known about the matter. We might be tempted to think that there is something in this: if human thoughts and desires and fears and preferences, all that goes under the name ‘politics’, were to be removed from the situation and the decision left entirely to God, would it not be better for everybody?

Even with 115 or 120 men voting nowadays to choose a new Pope we believe, of course, that it is God who is choosing the Pope. This may sound a bit startling, particularly in the days running up to a papal election, but on Good Friday each year, when we gather for the liturgy, we pray to God asking him to ‘protect the Pope you have chosen for us’. We know that Matthias was chosen to take the place of Judas and that it was by the casting of lots that he was elected. Would this not be a safer way of doing it still rather than leaving it to the uncertain politics of a group of interested human beings?

Thomas Aquinas, in his response to James of Tonengo, composed a short but very dense and nuanced treatise on the morality of casting lots, on what we might call alternative ways of finding out things that are hidden and of making decisions about the future. Casting lots as an alternative to making decisions may be acceptable in some circumstances, Thomas says, most of them minor, although he allows that the choosing of civil leaders could on occasion be done in this way. What he will not allow in any circumstances is the choosing of Church leaders by the casting of lots.

Far from believing that this would leave more room for the Holy Spirit to work, Thomas believes precisely the opposite. Where a decision is to be made by divine inspiration, he says, it is an insult to the Holy Spirit to withdraw that decision from human thinking and choosing. We believe that the Holy Spirit has come on the Church, Thomas says, something that had not yet happened when the Apostles cast lots to choose Matthias. The Holy Spirit instructs human sense to judge rightly, according to Saint Paul, so that the working of the Spirit in the Church is not apart from human beings but is within them, through their intelligence and their free judgements.

He quotes St Ambrose of Milan who says that one elected by lot is not contained within the responsibility of human judgement. So it is important that human beings accept responsibility for these key decisions and that the one who is elected knows that his election is within such responsibility. It is the concordia, the consensus we might say, of colleges of human beings that ought to produce Church leaders. (One might wonder in passing if this means that not only bishops of Rome but bishops elsewhere ought not to be chosen in some comparable forum as the conclave.)

I realise that I have not said anything about today’s readings on the Good Shepherd or about the fact that today is Vocations Sunday. On the other hand I believe that these comments of Aquinas about the casting of lots are directly relevant to both themes. What he says about the marriage of human spirits and the Holy Spirit in the making of key decisions, is exactly what he will say about the marriage of human spirits and the Holy Spirit in the following of Christ. The Holy Spirit makes us act freely he says in a paradoxical phrase, whenever we are seeking truth, practising good, discerning a vocation.

It is tempting to think that life would be easier if we could find magical ways of manipulating God, ways of seducing him into revealing his will and even making our decisions for us. Perhaps we could decide on a language, or a ritual, or a set of signs in which we could then invite God to make his will known. But God wants us to grow up and to become his adult children in Christ. As the adopted children of God, the sheep he calls by name, one by one, we live by the Holy Spirit of God. That is the deepest reality in us. Paul says that the Holy Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God so that in our thinking, desiring, fearing and preferring the Holy Spirit too is at work.

The key difference between a secular consensus about something and a spiritual one is that the human beings involved in seeking the spiritual one pray. The deacons in Acts 6 are chosen, not by lot but after prayer. The decisions of the so-called council at Jerusalem in Acts 15 are made after prayer so the apostles can make the (apparently) outrageous claim that ‘it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to ourselves’.

How do we hear the call of Christ? We hear it through our human experience. How do we recognise that what we are hearing is the call of Christ? We recognise it if we have become attuned to the voice of Christ in prayer. How do we know that what is happening is not just the outcome of human thinking and deciding? Well it has to be the outcome of human thinking and deciding. What makes it spiritual, we believe, is the prayer which surrounds it and sustains it and which, allowing also for sin of course, ensures that the human beings who are thinking and choosing are open to outcomes that might surprise even themselves.

The first reading teaches us that the listeners to the Spirit-filled Peter are suddenly cut to the quick but that he takes a long time and many arguments to convince them. Both are true in the world of the Spirit where human effort is long and can seem unfulfilling but, to the eyes of faith, all is happening speedily, by the gift of the Spirit, and according to God’s wise government of the Church.

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