09 May 2014

'I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.' Sunday Reflections, 3rd Sunday of Easter Year A

Murillo, c.1660, Museo del Prado, Madrid [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)

Jesus said:

"Very truly, I tell you, anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the gate but climbs in by another way is a thief and a bandit. The one who enters by the gate is the shepherd of the sheep. The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep hear his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. When he has brought out all his own, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow him because they know his voice. They will not follow a stranger, but they will run from him because they do not know the voice of strangers.” Jesus used this figure of speech with them, but they did not understand what he was saying to them.

So again Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and bandits; but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.  The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

And the sheep follow him because they know his voice.

Last week I wrote about the great influence of Fr Ralph Beiting, a diocesan priest in rural Kentucky, USA, on me when I was a young priest, though we never met again after 1970 except through occasional letters.

Fr Noel O'Neill is a Columban priest from the city of Limerick in Ireland who has been in Korea for most of 60 years now. I met him there in 2002 but had exchanged emails with him a number of times before that because I was inspired by his involvement with persons who have learning disabilities. One of the great blessings of being a missionary priest is that you come to know or know of so many priests who are Good Shepherds. Today is often called 'Good Shepherd Sunday' and It is truly right and just to acknowledge what so many priests - and others too - have been and are doing in serving those who are often forgotten or not even seen by others.

Fr Peter Woodruff is an Australian Columban who worked in Peru for many years. Here he tells part of the story of Father Noel.

Fr Noel O'Neill with friends in Korea

Fr Noel O'Neill arrived in South Korea in 1957, four years after the Korean War ended in 1953. The whole country had been devastated by war and was still in the throes of reconstruction.

Like most Columbans at that time in Korea, Fr O'Neill began his mission work building up and running parishes - this was his mission for 24 years.

During his time in Kwangju, he became involved with the Mudeong Institution, also known as the Beggars' Camp, which gave support to needy and marginalised people. The Institution was located on half an acre and housed 600 people of all ailments: alcoholics, psychiatric patients, orphans, homeless people and physically and intellectually impaired people.

When Fr O'Neill visited the Institution he saw that the intellectually impaired were not able to speak up for themselves and it was during this time that he felt drawn to do something positive for them, 'the forgotten ones'.

Then an incident occurred. Fr O'Neill was called to the hospital to visit You Ha, a gravely ill intellectually impaired young woman from the Mudeong Institution. He rushed to the hospital and arrived  just in time to hear You Ha utter one word 'Kamsahamnida' which means 'thank you' and she breathed her last.'

As You Ha had no family, the hospital was going to use her body for medical research. On hearing this, Fr O'Neill took on the responsibility of the funeral expenses and bought a grave in the Catholic cemetery. On the tombstone he had the following inscribed: 

Will you forgive society?
Will you forgive the Church?
For too long have we ignored you.

Father Noel visiting You Ha's grave

Fr O'Neill became increasingly involved with the intellectually impaired and won support from the Columbans and the local bishop to dedicate himself full-time to working with them.

He travelled to Australia to look for ideas and was introduced to L'Arche in Sydney. He later travelled to Canada and experienced living in one of Jean Vanier's L'Arche communities. (Jean Vanier is the founder of L'Arche Communities).

With Myeong Sek

With the support from government, religious organisations and individuals, he has been able to bring the intellectually impaired out of isolation. They now live in apartment blocks with the rest of the community, work alongside others who are not impaired and participate in religious activities. He has successfully challenged the accepted wisdom of keeping 'them' hidden; he has made 'them' visible.

Fr O'Neill clearly states, All that is required is that we respond positively to the questions that intellectually impaired people ask us:
Do you love me?
Will you come out for a meal?
Will you come for a walk?

It's the fundamental question of the Gospel, Do you love me?


Fr O'Neill speaking in Australia in 2011

Fr O 'Neill founded Emmaus Welfare Center in 1981 to serve persons in Korea with learning disabilities. The video below was made to mark the 30th anniversary of one of the communities Father Noel started - the first? - in which persons with intellectual disabilities and others live together the kind of life that Jesus the Good Shepherd lived for 30 years before starting his public mission, which lasted but three years. 

I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.

Pope Francis frequently asks people to pray for him. May I, as a priest, ask you to pray that all of us who have been called by God to the priesthood will truly be Good Shepherds.

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