11 May 2012

'That my joy may be in you . . .' Sunday Reflections, 6th Sunday of Easter Year B

The Last Supper, El Greco, c.1568

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA) 

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

Gospel John 15:9-17 (Revised Standard Version – Catholic Edition)

Jesus said to his disciples:

‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.

‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide; so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. This I command you, to love one another.’

From 1997 to 2000, during a six-year stint as vocation director of the Columbans in the Philippines, I lived in the Columban house in Negros Occidental, about an hour and a half south of Bacolod city where I now live. . One of my companions in the Columban house was the late Fr Edward Allen, born in the heart of Dublin in September 1906. He died on 3 March 2001. Father Eddie was severely incapacitated by a stroke in December 1998 but his mind and his sense of humour remained clear, even though his speech was difficult to understand at times.

In the late 1980s, when I was in charge of the Columban seminarians in their first year of study in Cebu City, when they were in the 16-17 age bracket, I invited Father Eddie over to spend some time with us and to talk about the early days of the Society of St Columban, formally established on the 29 June 1918. As it happened, Fr Aedan McGrath, born in Dublin in January 1906 and ordained in 1929, one year ahead of Father Eddie, happened to arrive. One morning at breakfast they were sitting at two different tables with groups of students and were eating brown bread, or what Americans call ‘Irish soda bread’. Virgie, our cook, had been taught by Irish Columban Sisters how to bake it and she did a good job if it. To my utter astonishment and delight Father Eddie and Father Aedan, already in their 80s, began to sing an old music hall song from Dublin that I wasn’t familiar with, Brown Bread. None of us had expected such early morning entertainment.

Maybe ten years or so later, after Father Eddie has his stroke, Father Aedan came to visit him in our house in Negros. Father Eddie didn’t know his old friend was coming. It was evening when he arrived and when Father Aedan walked into his room Father Eddie’s smile was like a particularly stunning sunrise. His senior by eight months solved the communication problem by talking about things he knew Father Eddie was interested in.

About a year after his stroke the nurse called me to Father Eddie’s room one night around 12 to give him last rites. He said very clearly, ‘I’m dying’. I anointed him. Those who were present said the prayers for the dying, sang a couple of hymns and we then said our goodbyes to him. But after a while it became apparent that he had come through the crisis and would be with us for a while yet. I went back to bed.

The following morning the nurses were joking with him, ‘Father, you were only practicing last night!’ There was a palpable sense of joy around the house, even though we expected him to go within a matter of days. He lived on for more than a year, outlasting Father Aedan by more than a year! Father Aedan, whom I thought might be the first Columban to reach 100, died suddenly at a family gathering in Dublin on Christmas morning 2000.

Both of these priests were full of the joy that Jesus wants to share with each of us, a joy that is not something on the surface but rather in the depths of our being. This is the gift that he spoke about at the Last Supper the night before he died. Father Aedan spent almost three years in solitary confinement in China from 1950 to 1953 because of his work there with the Legion of Mary but he didn’t have the slightest touch of bitterness towards the Chinese people, rather the opposite. [See video below]. Father Eddie in his 55 years in the Philippines, after spending the War years in our seminary in the USA, never held any position of authority in the Columbans or in a parish. He was quite happy to be an assistant to younger men. He had an extraordinary influence on the lives of many young women who found their vocation to the religious life under his guidance and encouragement.

Despite his physical helplessness in his last illness he was a source of strength to the nurses taking care of him. Their joking with him about ‘practising’ for death was to me a profound expression of their respect and affection for him and indeed of their faith in the Resurrection, a faith strengthened by the joyful faith of Father Eddie. How many of us would have that kind of freedom with a much older and sick person?

Those taking care of Father Eddie found this freedom because of the way he shared with them the joy that Jesus shared with him, a joy that he wants each of us to have.

The video below includes the one above and tells of an extraordinary event at Father Aedan's funeral.

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