26 August 2011

'What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life?' Sunday Reflections. 22nd Sunday Ordinary Time Year A, 28 August 2011

Sir Thomas More, Hans Holbein the Younger, painted 1527

Readings (New American Bible, used in the Philippines and USA).

Gospel Matthew 16:21-27 (Jerusalem Bible, used in Australia, England & Wales, Ireland, Scotlanc)

Jesus began to make it clear to his disciples that he was destined to go to Jerusalem and suffer grievously at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, to be put to death and to be raised up on the third day. Then, taking him aside, Peter started to remonstrate with him. 'Heaven preserve you, Lord;' he said 'this must not happen to you'. But he turned and said to Peter, 'Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle in my path, because the way you think is not God's way but man's.' Then Jesus said to his disciples, 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it. What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life? Or what has a man to offer in exchange for his life? 'For the Son of Man is going to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and, when he does, he will reward each one according to his behaviour.

An Soiscéal Matha 16:21-27(Gaeilge, Irish)

San am sin amach, thosaigh Íosa á thaispeáint dá dheisceabail nárbh fholáir dó dul go Iarúsailéim agus mórán a fhulaingt ó na seanóirí agus ó uachtaráin na sagart agus ó na scríobhaithe, agus a chur chun báis, agus éirí an treas lá. Ach thug Peadar ar fhód ar leith é agus thosaigh ag tabhairt casaoide dó: “Go bhfóire Dia ort, a Thiarna,” ar seisean, “agus i bhfad uait sin!” Ach d’iompaigh Íosa thairis agus dúirt le Peadar: “Siar i mo dhiaidh leat, a Shátain! is ceap tuisle dom thú, mar ní hiad smaointe Dé atá i d’aigne ach smaointe daoine.”

Ansin dúirt Íosa lena dheisceabail: “Más áil le haon duine bheith ar mo bhuíon, séanadh sé é féin, tógadh suas a chros agus leanadh mé. Óir cibé arb áil leis a anam a shaoradh, caillfidh sé é; ach cibé a chaillfidh a anam mar gheall ormsa, gheobhaidh sé é. Óir cá fearrde duine go ngnóthódh sé an domhan go léir dá ligfeadh sé a anam féin ar ceal? Nó cad a d’fhéadfadh duine a thabhairt mar mhalairt ar a anam?

Óir tá Mac an Duine le teacht faoi ghlóir a Athar lena chuid aingeal, agus ansin cúiteoidh sé le gach duine de réir mar a rinne. Deirim libh go fírinneach, tá daoine anseo i láthair nach mblaisfidh an bás nó go mbeidh Mac an Duine feicthe acu ag teacht ina ríocht.”

The above is one of the great dramatic scenes in a movie or a play. A Man for All Seasons, based on the life of St Thomas More, was written by Robert Bolt. It began life as a radio play on the BBC in 1954, was reworked as a one-hour TV play in 1967 and then as a stage play in 1960, a great success in London and on Broadway. The 1966 film, produced and directed by Fred Zinnemann, won six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor. The latter was for Paul Scofield who played Sir Thomas More.

In this scene during the trial Sir Richard Rich (played by John Hurt), an ambitious young man who once tried unsuccessfully to bribe the upright More, is being questioned by Thomas Cromwell (played by Leo McKern), perjures himself. As the witness leaves Sir Thomas asks to see his chain of office and learns that Sir Richard had just been appointed Attorney General for Wales. He looks sadly at Richard and says ironically, 'For Wales? For, Richard, it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world. But for Wales?'

This year has seen a number of long-term rulers toppled, in Tunisia, in Egypt and now in Libya. Each time a dictator goes I ask myself, 'Will they never learn?' None ends up as a free man. St Thomas in the trial scene says 'I am a dead man'. But, unlike Sir Richard Rich, he is a free man. He takes Jesus at his word: 'anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it'. He then goes on to quote to Richard the next sentence, 'it profits a man nothing to give his soul for the whole world' ('What, then, will a man gain if he wins the whole world and ruins his life?' in the Jerusalem Bible translation).

This Sunday is the tenth anniversary of the death of a Columban confrere and close friend who, like St Thomas More, died violently. Fr Rufus Halley (in photo above) was ambushed and shot dead while riding on his motorbike from an inter-faith meeting in Balabagan to his neighbouring parish in Malabang, Lanao del Sur, in the southern Philippines, both towns and the area predominantly Muslim. Father Rufus came from a privileged background in Ireland and spent the earlier years of his priesthood in a Catholic area of the Philippines, near Manila. He felt called by God to move to live among Muslims in the Prelature of Marawi, an area where only about five percent are Catholic and nearly all the others Muslim. He lived in constant tension, sometimes danger. He learned two new languages, Maranao, that of the majority of the Muslims in the area, and Cebuano-Visayan, that of the Christians.

Gaudencio Cardinal Rosales, Archbishop of Manila, wrote an article about Father Rufus for Misyon, the online Columban magazine I edit, for the July-August 2006 issue, when we still were a print magazine. The Cardinal got to know Father Rufus when he was a young auxiliary bishop of Manila with responsibility for the area where Father Rufus was assigned. Here are some of the things the Cardinal wrote.

  • We decided we’d celebrate Mass the next day back at the centro. We slept on the floor.
  •  I learned from the late Father Patrick Ronan, then parish priest in Morong, that Father Rufus came from a privileged background. That was a revelation to me, as I had always been struck by the simplicity I saw in his life. Father Ronan, another Irish missionary with a great sense of humor and known to his fellow Columbans as ‘Pops’, had spent time in jail in China after the Communist takeover in 1949.
  • Around 1980 Father Rufus felt called by God to leave the security of living in an overwhelmingly Catholic community to work in the new Prelature of Marawi, which includes all of Lanao del Sur and part of Lanao del Norte, where 95 percent of the people are Muslims. He was very aware of the long history of tension and occasional outright conflict between Christians and Muslims. He also became fluent in two other languages, Maranao, spoken by the Muslims in the area, and Cebuano, spoken by the Christians.
  • I knew of the intensity with which Father Rufus lived his own Christian faith, how he began each day with an hour of adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, the centrality of the Mass in his life. A big influence on him was the life of Charles de Foucauld, 1858-1916, beatified last November. This Frenchman was also from a privileged background. Unlike Pareng Rufus, he lost his Catholic faith and became a notorious playboy before re-discovering it, partly through the example of Muslims living in North Africa. He spent many years as a priest living among the poorest Muslims in a remote corner of the Sahara, pioneering Christian-Muslim dialogue by discovering himself as the Little Brother of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and as the Little Brother of the Muslims who came knocking at his hermitage door.
  • On 1 December 1916 Charles de Foucauld died at the hands of a young gunman outside his hermitage and on 28 September 2001 Pareng Rufus died at the hands of gunmen who ambushed him as he was riding on his motorcycle from a meeting of Muslim and Christian leaders in Balabagan to his parish in Malabang. The local people, both Christian and Muslim, mourned for him deeply. The grief of the Muslims was all the greater because the men who murdered my Pareng Rufus happened to be Muslims. This great missionary priest brought both communities together in their shared grief for a man of God, a true follower of Jesus Christ.
Though born into privilege, like St Thomas More, Father Rufus had no interest in clinging on to it. Though honoured as a priest by the people in his parish he chose to let go of the prestige that carried in order to answer God's call to live in a place where he would experience insecurity and danger. Like St Thomas More, he took Jesus at his word: 'If anyone wants to be a follower of mine, let him renounce himself and take up his cross and follow me. For anyone who wants to save his life will lose it; but anyone who loses his life for my sake will find it'.

Very few of us will be called to martyrdom or to violent deaths because of being Catholic Christians. But what are the areas in our lives where we are prepared to ignore what is right in order to have some passing power or privilege, such as Sir Richard Rich sought? It may not be a matter of bribery or perjury but of excusing ourselves because 'everyone does it', 'things are different now', etc, etc.

St Thomas More is the patron saint of statesmen, politicians and lawyers.

A note on Wales

Wales, in red, is now part of the United Kingdom but has its own language, far older than the English language, and national assembly, (a regional parliament with limited powers). It is about one-and-a-half times the size of the island of Negros in the central Philippines, where I live, but, with 3,000,000 people only three-quarters of the population of the island.

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