I love the readings of this Sunday. They are like three wholesome dishes that need to be tasted separately, yet they form one wonderful meal.
First, Jonah, my favourite prophet, warns the people of Nineveh of impending doom and the need for penance. He has little love for the people to whom he brings this message, but he obeys God's command.
The Assyrians were bitter enemies of Israel and Jonah was a Jew. I imagine him passing through the huge gates of the immense city and walking along the narrow, busy streets, beside flat-roofed houses, high temples of pagan gods and splendid palaces of kings.
His robes revealed his origins. The Assyrians, a proud and warlike people, wore distinct native garb and hairdos. All Assyrian women were veiled by law. Should a non-Assyrian woman wear such a veil, she would be flogged and her hair covered in tar, also by law.
All foreigners, a despised group, stuck out like sore thumbs. You knew who was who and treated him accordingly.
Yet before Jonah had walked through one-third of the sprawling city, its inhabitants were wearing sackcloth and fasting. Nineveh was saved.
Oh, if only we had their faith and childlike trust. These ancient people did not do anything by halves.
Over and over, we too hear calls to repent. We have been blessed with several prophetic popes and the technology that delivers their messages to our doorstep. Yet how many of us have read papal speeches, encyclicals, their books? How often do we visit the Vatican website?
Miraculous apparitions of Mary, who is pleading with us to mend our ways and pray were more numerous in the 20th century than ever before. Who has not heard of Fatima and Akita in Japan, to name just two Church-approved sites?
'Make me know your ways O Lord; Teach me your paths.'
Yet, strangely numbed in will and heart, we often fail to fully respond to Mary's words. We love to hear about the supernatural manifestations which accompany Mary's coming; we are moved by her words for a day or two – then the daily rush, like a tidal wave engulfs us again – and we run, rush, run, rush, mindless of her call, chasing our electric rabbits of success, intent on snatching scraps of human applause.
The Ninevites were given only one call – and that delivered by one man, a foreigner to boot – and they were on their knees. We hear words of Peter's successors, truly holy men, and are granted incredible gifts of Mary's messages – so what is the matter with us, people of the 21st century?
We need gifts of the Holy Spirit as no other generation before.
So let's call with the psalmist: "Teach me your ways, O Lord. Your ways, O Lord, make known to me; teach me your paths." I need my ears to be opened by your grace and my will enlivened for me. I too am desperately weak. I need to be carried in your arms. I can walk no longer.
When St. Paul reminds us that "the world in its present form is passing away" and that "the time is running out," the sense of urgency increases. We all have that feeling that our world is changing invariably, what with the strange weather, threat of recession, terrorist wars, shocking crimes of which we hear so much.
What should we do? St. Paul gives strange advice: "Let those weeping (act) as not weeping, those rejoicing (act) as not rejoicing, those buying (act) as not owning."
For years I have struggled with the meaning of these words. Quite recently, however, I met a very ill woman who, despite her condition, is calm and peaceful. She is awaiting a serious operation with dim prospects of success. She asks few questions about the future but does not neglect the present.
She is grateful for every small pleasure and every moment of joy. "God is looking after me," she says. "He is with me all the time."
A few minutes ago I saw her looking through the window at the blue sky, so bright and sunny in our unseasonable weather. "Up there is my true home," she said quietly.
Indeed, our true home is not here. Maybe this is why we should weep as if we were not weeping because we are heading for the place where there are no tears.
Yet not all know the Good News, not all know yet that "all will be well, that all manners of things will be well." So in the Gospel, Jesus calls his disciples away from their boats, nets and fish. "I will make you fishers of men," he says, and they follow him, just as the 40 or so seminarians in our new seminary do.
I pass this lovely building daily and send our fishers of men one Hail Mary, praying that, once ordained, they teach us how to live both on earth and in heaven.