29 March 2017

'Everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ Sunday Reflections, Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year A

The Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt [Web Gallery of Art]

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)

For the shorter form of the Gospel omit the passages [in square brackets].

Gospel John 11:1-44 [11:3-7, 17, 20-27, 33b-45] (New Revised  Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition) 

[Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill.] So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’  [The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’]
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus[d] had already been in the tomb for four days. [Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother.] When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
[When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When] Jesus saw her weeping and [the Jews who came with her also weeping, he] was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’  Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’  The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
I think it was back in the 1980s when I was at home in Ireland on a visit that I heard a young diocesan priest being interviewed on national radio about his work as a prison chaplain. He spoke about an occasion when he spent an hour in a cell with one prisoner who was there for stealing on a large scale. The priest got no response whatever - until he was about to leave. He then looked at the young man, put his arms around him and said, 'I love you', adding the man's name.

The prisoner broke down and began to open up to the priest. Over a period of time they became friends. After he was released the young man set up a successful security agency, no doubt drawing on his 'professional skills'.

In Worldwide Marriage Encounter we say 'Love is a decision'. At times it may be accompanied by warm feelings, at other times the very opposite. It is easy for a young man and a young woman who find each other attractive to feel 'love'. This may lead to 'until death do us part', a very solemn decision to love one another.



In his general audience on Wednesday, 2 April 2014, Pope Francis reminded married couples of this, gently, humorously and clearly. The secret is that love is stronger than an argument. And therefore I always advise married couples, 'Don't end your day without making peace.

Here the Pope was saying 'Love is a decision'. He added humorously: It's not necessary to call the United Nations and have them come to your house to broker the peace. A little gesture will do, a caress, a 'Goodnight, see you tomorrow'. And tomorrow you start over. This is life, carry on! Go forward with the courage to want to live together. This is great, it's beautiful. What Pope Francis is saying here is that love is a decision, a major decision made on one's wedding day that demands many daily 'minor' decisions. The same applies to anyone called to a commitment.

The young priest visiting the prisoner in Ireland wasn't experiencing any feelings of love for the prisoner and the latter probably felt deep anger towards him, maybe even hatred. But the priest made a decision to love that man, no matter how difficult it was, no matter what he was feeling at the time.

The Raising of Lazarus (after Rembrandt), Van Gogh

In the gospel we find Jesus making a number of decisions, all expressions of love:
  • He decided not to go immediately to visit the gravely ill Lazarus when he got news of this: Though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
  • He then decided to go back to Judea despite the fears of his disciples that harm would come to him.
  • He accepted the reproaches of both Martha and Mary: Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. He made no attempt to 'explain' why he hadn't come.
  • He told the people: Take away the stone.
The purpose of Jesus in all these decisions was to lead the disciples and Martha and Mary into a deeper faith:
  • To the disciples and later to Martha: Lazarus is dead.  For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe.
  • To the Father: Father, I thank you for having heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me. 
It is clear from the gospels that Jesus had a special, though not exclusive, affection for Martha, Mary and Lazarus. Maybe he felt free to drop into their home at any time and not be 'on duty'. (As an aside, in more than 40 years in the Philippines I have rarely seen a bishop invited to any kind of occasion except to 'do something', to be 'on duty'.) The friendship Jesus had with the three gave them the freedom to be open with him and to be true to themselves.  Luke 10:38-42 shows us Martha scolding Mary in front of Jesus in a way that happens with someone considered part of the family. The Lord, if you had been here . . . of both Martha and Mary can be read as a reproach mingled with hope to someone deeply trusted. 

Jesus invites each of us into that kind of warm, trusting relationship that is expressed in the story about St Teresa of AvilaOnce, when she was travelling to one of her convents, St Teresa of Ávila was knocked off her donkey and fell into the mud, injuring her leg. 'Lord', she said, 'you couldn’t have picked a worse time for this to happen. Why would you let this happen?' And the response in prayer that she heard was, 'That is how I treat my friends'. Teresa answered, 'And that is why you have so few of them!'

But above all in the raising of Lazarus, which points towards the death and Resurrection of Jesus himself, we see the resurrection and the life who was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved confronting death and conquering it. The death he was conquering wasn't only physical death but the sickness and death brought about by sin. Jesus calls us to faith and hope in him and to make decisions to love based on that faith and hope.

It was such faith that gave that young priest in the prison cell the courage to express his love, rooted in the love of Jesus for both, for the prisoner in deed and then in word. And it was that expression of love, in deed and in word, rooted in the love of the resurrection and the life for both, that enabled the man to walk out of the prison cell he had created for himself in his own heart.

The decision of the priest to stay with the prisoner despite the lack of response and the eventual decision of the prisoner to believe in God's love for him were both examples of love being a decision, decisions based on trust in God's love for them, the kind of trust that Martha and Mary had in Jesus.


Antiphona ad Introitum Cf Ps 42 (43) 1-2

Iudica me, Deus
et discerne causam meam de gente non sancta,
ab homine iniquo et doloso eripe me,
qui tu es Deus meus et fortitudo mea.

Entrance Antiphon  Cf Ps 42 (43) 1-2

Give me justice, O God,
and plead my cause against a nation that is faithless.
From the deceitful and cunning rescue me,
for you, O God, are my strength.

28 March 2017

Columban Sister Kathleen Melia: 'Just one more on someone's hit list'

Sr Kathleen Melia SSC [Sunday Examiner]

Columban Sister Kathleen Melia SSC, from County Leitrim, Ireland, was attacked outside her home in Midsalip, Zamboanga del Sur, Philippines, on the evening of Ash Wednesday. She is now recovering in Manila. Below is an article from the 19 March 2017 issue of Sunday Examiner, the English-language weekly of the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong. It is slightly edited and used with permission.

OZAMIZ CITY (SE): 'The wound in the people’s minds is deeper and more painful than the wounds in the body of Sister Kathleen Melia,' Columban Father Sean Martin from Ozamiz City in the Philippines told the Sunday Examiner after the 70-year-old Columban Sister was bashed in her home on 1 March, Ash Wednesday.

Sister Kathleen has worked among the Subanen people in the hills of Zamboanga for over 30 years and the unexplained attack is being described by the people as one more step in the chain of evil that is maligning their lives.

Sister Kathleen returned home to Midsalip on the afternoon of 1 March. Around 9.30pm she went out to close windows when she was attacked.

A hand was clamped over her mouth and the other hand began choking her, but she was able to get at her attacker’s face and, in protecting himself, he took his hand off her mouth—she screamed. He then thumped her on the chest and she fell the 30 centimetres from the raised pathway, hurting her leg and losing consciousness. He then ran off.

Sister Kathleen lives in a compound of three houses, the other two are community homes for the Subanen people to gather and speak in their own language without being mocked, derided or laughed at by others. After 30 odd years she speaks their language well and the people came to help her, then the police arrived. As people wondered whether the attacker intended to kill or frighten her, the police sent security with her to a hospital in Ozamiz City.


Midsalip

Sister Kathleen needed a blood transfusion, but the search for a donor was arduous and time consuming, with a seminarian eventually having to travel the five hours from Cagayan de Oro to match her B negative blood type. (Fewer than one percent of Filipinos have RH negative blood).

Then a boat trip to Manila, as flying was problematic. The morning boat had not arrived by nightfall, but there was faith it would come eventually.

Fr Sean Martin

Father Martin, who spent many years in Midsalip, says that this is just one act of violence among many in the volatile area of the nation, where the politics of the gun reign, the rich plunder and grow richer and the poor are squeezed out of even the little they have. But this is how politics and industry operate in Mindanao and deaths related to conflict of interest among various groups does not come as a surprise.

Father Martin related that in the previous week, Rosing Arnosa, who ran in the election last May against the incumbent mayor, Leonida Angcap, was shot five times in front of his house in Midsalip around nightfall. Although badly wounded he did not lose consciousness and recognised the gunman, who is now the murderer, as Arnosa later died of his wounds in a hospital in Pagadian City around 1.00am. He believed that the barangay captain, Eduardo Selim, from Matalang, was angry because his son was arrested and charged with being a goon (violent enforcer) for Angcap. Bail was set at Php120,000 (US$2,400, 2,200).


Picketing area in Midsalip

In the small town of Midsalip alone nine people were killed in the run up to the elections in May last year. Four were goons, thugs or hitmen of another mayor and five worked for Conrado Lumacad, who also ran against Angcap.

Father Martin adds that although the mayor has two charges of plunder against her, it does not seem to concern her, even though President Rodrigo Duterte has used some rhetoric about the crime. He seems more intent on killing the poor and did not complain when the congress removed the charge of plunder from the 'Kill Bill' that was passed in the lower house on 7 March.

'But in these remote areas, killing witnesses and scaring opponents is the usual way for powerful people to keep control,' Father Martin explained. He also remembered that Angcap’s son killed five road workers while driving under the influence in the early hours of the morning in 2013, but it was hushed up and did not even make it to the newspapers. He still holds his job with the municipality.

'Plunder, manslaughter with impunity is the name of the game in the world of the mayor and it just increases the brazenness,' Father Martin reflected.

It is all a warning to Sister Kathleen not to stand in the way of mining and logging companies that come to rape the countryside, mostly illegally. She is just one more person on someone’s hit list.


Columban Father Vincent Busch, of Subanen Crafts and seen at the beginning of the video above, recently sent an update on Sister Kathleen's situation. Here is the last part of his report.

On 14 March Sister Kathleen’s operation began at 11am as scheduled.  The surgical team was led by Osteopathologist Doctor Vicente Gomez.  For two hours Dr Gomez tried to take out the old pin that was inserted in her leg during a previous surgery years ago. That pin is now obsolete and the instruments used to extract it were no longer readily available. The doctor knew that the previous pin was old so he asked the manufacturer of the pin for the proper instruments to remove it.  Even with the proper tools the doctor couldn’t remove the old pin.  

He tried alternative instruments but these instruments also did not work.   What he had planned to do was take out the old pin and replace it with a new and longer one. In the end, he inserted the new pin next to the old one.  The old pin had adhered to the bone.   Ordinarily it would have taken only 1 1/2 hours to fix the fracture; instead the surgical procedures lasted from 11am to 6pm.  Sister Kathleen will not be able to put weight on her repaired leg for three months.  She will need to use a walker until the leg and bone have healed and strengthened.

Through all these past three weeks Sister Kathleen has been aware of her situation. She was and remains calmly involved in her recovery.  While in Ozamiz she had many Subanen visitors who have known and worked with her for decades, as well as visitors she knows from Ozamiz.  I visited her every day and on Sunday 5 March 5 celebrated Mass with her in the hospital, with the Columban Sisters of the Ozamiz City community present.

On the morning of 15 March Sister Kathleen had her first therapy session in which she managed to sit on the side of her hospital bed. 

This chronology presents the events following the attack on Sister Kathleen.  It reveals her calm resolve in facing her ordeal, and it brings to light the efforts of the Subanen Ministry and of Columbans, especially the Columban Sisters, to tend to Kathleen’s needs.

Sister Kathleen with friends in Midsalip

Misyon, now MISYONonline.com, the magazine of the Columbans in the Philippines of which I have been editor since October 2002, published an article by Sr Kathleen Melia in the May-June 1998 issue, Mining: Threat to our Tribes.

In an article by Mary Joy Rile, editorial assistant of MISYONonline.com, in the November-December 2011 issue, Hope for Midsalip, Sister Kathleen is quoted: If a Subanen cuts down one tree, he is charged for breaking the law. But what about the loggers who move freely? The Subanens have been oppressed in their own land. When mining is permitted, the companies will claim the land, the water, the trees and the rest. There is no justice here in Midsalip. 

Rice land, Midsalip

God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food. And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.’ And it was so. God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good (Genesis 1:29-31).

Proposed drilling site, Midsalip




24 March 2017

'One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.' Sunday Reflections. Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year A

Blind Pensioner with a Stick, Van Gogh [Web Gallery of Art]


Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

Readings (Jerusalem Bible: Australia, England & Wales, India [optional], Ireland, New Zealand, Pakistan, Scotland, South Africa)


For the shorter form of the Gospel omit the passages [in square brackets].

Gospel John 9:1-41 [9: 1, 6-9, 13-17, 34-38] (New Revised  Standard Version, Anglicised Catholic Edition) 

As Jesus walked along, he saw a man blind from birth. [His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.’] When he had said this, he spat on the ground and made mud with the saliva and spread the mud on the man’s eyes, saying to him, ‘Go, wash in the pool of Siloam’ (which means Sent). Then he went and washed and came back able to see. The neighbours and those who had seen him before as a beggar began to ask, ‘Is this not the man who used to sit and beg?’ Some were saying, ‘It is he.’ Others were saying, ‘No, but it is someone like him.’ He kept saying, ‘I am the man. [But they kept asking him, ‘Then how were your eyes opened?’ He answered, ‘The man called Jesus made mud, spread it on my eyes, and said to me, “Go to Siloam and wash.” Then I went and washed and received my sight.’ They said to him, ‘Where is he?’ He said, ‘I do not know.’]
They brought to the Pharisees the man who had formerly been blind. Now it was a sabbath day when Jesus made the mud and opened his eyes.  Then the Pharisees also began to ask him how he had received his sight. He said to them, ‘He put mud on my eyes. Then I washed, and now I see.’ Some of the Pharisees said, ‘This man is not from God, for he does not observe the sabbath.’ But others said, ‘How can a man who is a sinner perform such signs?’ And they were divided. So they said again to the blind man, ‘What do you say about him? It was your eyes he opened.’ He said, ‘He is a prophet.’
[The Jews did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they called the parents of the man who had received his sight and asked them, ‘Is this your son, who you say was born blind? How then does he now see?’ His parents answered, ‘We know that this is our son, and that he was born blind; but we do not know how it is that now he sees, nor do we know who opened his eyes. Ask him; he is of age. He will speak for himself.’ His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews; for the Jews had already agreed that anyone who confessed Jesus to be the Messiah would be put out of the synagogue. Therefore his parents said, ‘He is of age; ask him.’
So for the second time they called the man who had been blind, and they said to him, ‘Give glory to God! We know that this man is a sinner.’ He answered, ‘I do not know whether he is a sinner. One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see.’ They said to him, ‘What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?’ He answered them, ‘I have told you already, and you would not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you also want to become his disciples?’ Then they reviled him, saying, ‘You are his disciple, but we are disciples of Moses. We know that God has spoken to Moses, but as for this man, we do not know where he comes from.’ The man answered, ‘Here is an astonishing thing! You do not know where he comes from, and yet he opened my eyes. We know that God does not listen to sinners, but he does listen to one who worships him and obeys his will. Never since the world began has it been heard that anyone opened the eyes of a person born blind. If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.’ They answered him, ‘You were born entirely in sins, and are you trying to teach us?’ And they drove him out.]
Jesus heard that they had driven him out, and when he found him, he said, ‘Do you believe in the Son of Man?’ He answered, ‘And who is he, sir? Tell me, so that I may believe in him.’ Jesus said to him, ‘You have seen him, and the one speaking with you is he.’ He said, ‘Lord, I believe.’ And he worshipped him. [Jesus said, ‘I came into this world for judgement so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.’ Some of the Pharisees near him heard this and said to him, ‘Surely we are not blind, are we?’ Jesus said to them, ‘If you were blind, you would not have sin. But now that you say, “We see”, your sin remains.]

In his homily on the Solemnity of the Annunciation in 2014 Pope Francis said, Salvation cannot be bought and sold; it is given as a gift, it is free . . . We cannot save ourselves, salvation is a totally free gift.  The Pope continued: Since it cannot be bought, in order for this salvation to enter into us we need a humble heart, a docile heart, an obedient heart like Mary's. Moreover, the model on this journey of salvation is God himself, his Son, who did not count equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied himself, and was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.

All of the people in this Sunday's gospel had been given the gift of faith but only the man who received the gift of sight from Jesus professed his faith openly, his faith in Jesus: Lord, I believe. Not only that, he began to share the gift of his faith with others, most especially the Pharisees who were trying to intimidate him. They proclaimed themselves as disciples of Moses. As such, they should have been prepared for the coming of the Messiah who was now among them.

But they had developed a sense of 'proprietorship' of their faith, a righteous complacency that blinded them to the extent that they dismissed a man who was born blind as a sinner with nothing from which they could learn. The man born blind, on the other hand, has an acute sense of being gifted, by the gift of sight and by the gift of faith. He is an embodiment of the thrust of Pope Francis' apostolic exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, The Joy of the Gospel.

Our Christian faith is a gift that can be lost by an individual and by a whole community. The Church flourished in North Africa and in the Middle East before Islam came into being but the vast majority lost the gift of our faith. In our own lifetime the faith has been rapidly disappearing from places such as Belgium, Ireland, the Netherlands, Quebec. Fifty years ago these places were sending missionaries to every part of the world and their seminaries were full. Now most of the seminaries have been closed down. Just over 100 years ago CICM brothers and priests (Scheut Missionaries, Missionhurst) and ICM Sisters came to the mountains of northern Luzon from a part of Europe that is as flat as a billiard table, most of Belgium and the Netherlands. In February 2014 Belgium made it legal for sick children to be killed, to be put down like sick animals. There was little international reaction to this, though there was to the putting down of a healthy giraffe in a zoo in Denmark a few days earlier.

There still are people in these places and others like them who are living the Christian life faithfully, often heroically. Martyrs such as Fr Ragheed Ganni of Iraq and politician Shahbaz Bhatti of Pakistan are outstanding examples. Another is the late Professor Jérôme Lejeune, doctor and researcher, who in 1959 discovered the cause of Down syndrome (trisomy 21). 


Servant of God Jérôme Lejeune

In so many places in the gospel we find Jesus going out to those considered unimportant such as the blind man in today's gospel. Pope Francis met with thousands of persons who are blind or profoundly deaf on Saturday 29 March 2014, the first ever such gathering in the Vatican. And there were probably some present who were both deaf and blind.


John Milton, who went blind as an adult, in his poem On His Blindness (below) shows an acceptance of what he calls his mild yoke and a sense of our sight and everything else being gifts from God.

Pope Francis in Evangelii Gaudium No 264 gives us some pointers:

We need to implore his grace daily, asking him to open our cold hearts and shake up our lukewarm and superficial existence . . . How good it is to stand before a crucifix, or on our knees before the Blessed Sacrament, and simply to be in his presence!

The best incentive for sharing the Gospel comes from contemplating it with love, lingering over its pages and reading it with the heart.

Sometimes we lose our enthusiasm for mission because we forget that the Gospel responds to our deepest needs, since we were created for what the Gospel offers us: friendship with Jesus and love of our brothers and sisters.

The words of Pope Francis suggest a basic attitude of gratitude to God such as we see in the man who tells everyone, One thing I do know, that though I was blind, now I see. 

Somewhat different from the Pharisees' Surely we are not blind, are we?

Which statement/question reflects my stance before God?

On His Blindness by John Milton

When I consider how my light is spent
Ere half my days in this dark world and wide,
And that one talent which is death to hide
Lodg'd with me useless, though my soul more bent
To serve therewith my Maker, and present
My true account, lest he returning chide,
"Doth God exact day-labour, light denied?"
I fondly ask. But Patience, to prevent
That murmur, soon replies: "God doth not need
Either man's work or his own gifts: who best
Bear his mild yoke, they serve him best. His state
Is kingly; thousands at his bidding speed
And post o'er land and ocean without rest:
They also serve who only stand and wait."


This video, posted by the Jerome Lejeune Foundation USA, is, I think, an eye-opener.