30 May 2014

'I am with you always . . .' Sunday Reflections. The Ascension; 7th Sunday of Easter

The Ascension of Christ, Rembrandt, 1638
Alte Pinakotech, Munich [Web Gallery of Art]

Solemnity of the Ascension 

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)                                  

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

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. When they saw him, they worshiped him; but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The readings above are used whether the Solemnity is celebrated on Ascension Thursday or on the following Sunday. They are used both at the Vigil Mass and at the Mass during the Day. The two Masses have a different set of prayers. Both fulfill the obligation of participating at Mass on a holyday of obligation, as Ascension Thursday is where the solemnity is observed on that day, and as every Sunday is.

The Seventh Sunday of Easter, where the Ascension is celebrated on Ascension Thursday

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)                                  

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

After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.

 “I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.

The Ascension

Bicycles in Buenos Aires [Wikipedia]

Early in the summer of 1953 when I was ten my father taught me how to ride a bicycle. In August of that year, when we were on holiday in Bray, south of Dublin, he taught me how to swim. I borrowed cry cousin Deirdre's bike, a small blue one and practised on Halliday Square, Dublin,, just below our street. It had a long enclosed garden in the centre where some local people grew vegetables, as I recall, and in my young mind was a kind of racing circuit.

However, in order to do any racing I had to learn first to keep on the bike while moving. My father held on to the saddle while I moved forward, wobbling quite a bit for about ten metres before we'd start again. I'm not sure how many times we repeated this or over how many evenings. But a moment arrived when I realized that I was moving forward steadily and surely - and Dad wasn't holding on to the saddle. I was on my own. A great thrill - with an awareness that I could't 'unlearn' how to ride. From that moment I could only move forward, in more senses than one. And before long I found myself racing around the circuit that was Halliday Square, sometimes against others, sometimes just 'against myself'.

Seafront and Bray Head, Bray, Ireland [Wikipedia]

Dad's approach to teaching me how to swim was similar. He held his hand under my chest, in fairly shallow water, off the stony beach in the photo above. I was trying to do the breaststroke. As with the bike, he showed great patience and I had absolute trust in him knowing that he wouldn't let me sink, just as he hadn't let me fall off the bicycle.

Once again there was the magic moment when I realized that Dad's hand was no longer touching my chest - I was swimming on my own. And as with cycling, this is an ability that you cannot 'unlearn'.

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth, Jesus tells the Apostles in the First Reading (Acts 1:8).

My experience with my father - and with my mother too who often said to me in my childhood years When you're 21 you'll be responsible for yourself, giving me a goal to reach - helps me understand something of the meaning of today's feast. If my Dad had kept holding on to the saddle of my cousin's bike I would never have learned to go on my own. If he had kept holding me while teaching me to swim I would have remained dependent on him.

If Jesus, the Risen Lord, had stayed with the Apostles they would have remained in Jerusalem and never have gone to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.

For the next eight years after learning to ride a bike I cycled to school twice each day, unless it was raining, coming home for lunch, getting about an hour's exercise in the process without calling it that. And in a very real way my Dad was always with me because he had enabled me to acquire a skill that in turn gave me a new freedom that brought with it new responsibilities and new possibilities. New possibilities and the responsibilities that go with them continue to arise in my life as a priest. 

And in the life of the Church, as in the life of each individual, new situations with their challenges are constantly arising. The one thing that we can be certain of as disciples of Jesus, carrying out the mission he has entrusted to the Church, whatever our particular part may be in that mission, is the truth of his final words before his Ascension, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

He is with us always through his Holy Spirit whose coming we will celebrate next Sunday.

Ascension: Mass during the Day
Antiphona ad Introitum  Entrance Antiphon Acts 1:11  

Viri Galilei, quid admiramini aspicientes in caelum?
Men of Galilee, why gaze in wonder at the heavens?
Quemadmodum vidistis eum ascendentem in caelun, ita veniet, alleluia.
This Jesus whom you saw ascending into heaven will return as you saw him go, alleluia.

Hymn for the Ascension by Georgi Popov
Sung in Vienna by the Bulgarian choir Hosanna

24 May 2014

24 May, Day of Prayer for China: Our Lady of Sheshan. Our Lady, Help of Christians

Pope Benedict XVI designated the 24th May each year as a special day of prayer with the Church in China urging the universal Church to join together with a special prayer at the weekend Masses in all our parishes. There is a special prayer for China to Our Lady of Sheshan written by Pope Benedict 
You can read more in an article by John Battle on the website of the Columbans in the USA here.


 Our Lady of Sheshan
Virgin Most Holy, Mother of the Incarnate Word and our Mother,
venerated in the Shrine of Sheshan under the title "Help of Christians",
the entire Church in China looks to you with devout affection.
We come before you today to implore your protection.
Look upon the People of God and, with a mother’s care, guide them
along the paths of truth and love, so that they may always be
a leaven of harmonious coexistence among all citizens.
When you obediently said "yes" in the house of Nazareth,
you allowed God’s eternal Son to take flesh in your virginal womb
and thus to begin in history the work of our redemption.
You willingly and generously cooperated in that work,
allowing the sword of pain to pierce your soul,
until the supreme hour of the Cross, when you kept watch on Calvary,
standing beside your Son, who died that we might live.
From that moment, you became, in a new way,
the Mother of all those who receive your Son Jesus in faith
and choose to follow in his footsteps by taking up his Cross.
Mother of hope, in the darkness of Holy Saturday you journeyed
with unfailing trust towards the dawn of Easter.
Grant that your children may discern at all times,
even those that are darkest, the signs of God’s loving presence.
Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China,
who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love.
May they never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world,
and of the world to Jesus.
In the statue overlooking the Shrine you lift your Son on high,
offering him to the world with open arms in a gesture of love.
Help Catholics always to be credible witnesses to this love,
ever clinging to the rock of Peter on which the Church is built.
Mother of China and all Asia, pray for us, now and for ever. Amen!

You can see close-up of the image of Our Lady of Sheshan in the video above of a procession in Flushing, New York City, Diocese of Brooklyn. Pope Benedict refers to the imagery of the statue in the last paragraph of his prayer.
Our Lady, Help of Christian, is the Patron of Australia, where your editor is posting this. And under that title our Blessed Mother is venerated in a special way by the Salesians.
The Spanish title for Our Lady, Help of Christians, is Maria Auxiliadora.

22 May 2014

'Because I live, you also will live.' Sunday Reflections, 6th Sunday of Easter Year A

The Last Supper, Tintoretto, 1579-81
Scuola Grande di San Rocco, Venice [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 to his disciples:

“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever.  This is the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you.

 “I will not leave you orphaned; I am coming to you. In a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you also will live.  On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”

Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window (detail), Vermeer, 1657
Gemäldegalerie, Dresden [Web Gallery of Art]

In the summer of 1982 when I worked for a month or so in an American parish after a year's study in Toronto I went to visit a friend who had turned 29 earlier that year. I first met 'Gina', as I'll call my Italian-American friend, when she was a mixed-up 16-year-old with a generous and honest heart. Over the years I was a mentor in the faith to her, mostly by correspondence, as we met only every few years. Gina was a wonderful letter-writer, hence the painting by Vermeer above, though I used to gently tease her on occasion about misspellings - she was a teacher.

I had seen Gina grow strong in the faith over the years and when she graduated she chose to teach in a Catholic school, with a lower salary, than in the public school system, because of her commitment. She also took time out at one stage to spend a year working with a charismatic group.

When we met in 1982, shortly after she had spent some time in the ICU, Gina told me that she felt she didn't have long to live. It was the first time anyone had ever said that to me and I had the grace to take her at her word. I knew that she didn't enjoy robust health and I was also aware of two attempts to take her own life.

The first was when she was around 17. She slit her wrist. Fortunately, her parents found her and took her straight to hospital. During her recovery, which was a kind of 'resurrection' experience for her, she saw clearly that her parents loved her, despite the infidelity of her father that she had been aware of since she was about six, knowledge she had tried to protect her younger brother from.

But in the summer of 1981, before I went to Toronto, I spent a month in the parish where I found myself again the following year. Not long after going there I did something that I rarely did - make a phone call late at night. I normally don't phone someone unless there's some business to discuss and I don't call people when they might already be in bed. I was shocked when Gina answered. She sounded drunk. I discovered that she had taken an overdose of a high-risk medicine that the doctor had prescribed for her multiple sclerosis (MS). I told her I would come over immediately. She said that she would't let me in. She lived in an apartment on her own, not far from her parents' house. I asked another priest to come with me. And when we arrived she didn't carry out her threat not to let me in.

After a couple of hours we were satisfied that Gina hadn't taken enough to kill herself and that she wouldn't do anything drastic during the night. I promised to return in the morning and I was to spend most of the next two days with her. 

I knew that at that particular time I was the only person whom Gina could trust and open her heart to. The breakthrough came on the second morning. What had triggered off her attempted suicide was something her mother had said indicating that Gina wasn't living up to her expectations. Gina, who felt deep shame at the state she was in in my presence, asked me, What are your expectations of me? I answered, I don't have any, only hopes.

That was when Gina made a clear decision to live. St Peter tells us in today's Second Reading: Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence (1 Peter 3:15-16).

When I went back to the parish later I had no worries. A few days later Gina came to Mass there, as serene and happy as could be. For the second time in her life she had truly experienced a 'resurrection' but this time understanding it clearly from the vantage of her deep faith. 

And a day or two later I received a letter from Gina that I still treasure that was an expression of her Catholic Christian faith and of her reverence for the grace that the priesthood is for God's people and specifically for her. And she got her 'revenge' on me for my teasing about her occasional misspellings by deliberately misspelling almost every word in the opening paragraph and promising to say a Hail Mary for each misspelled word I might find in the rest of the letter - and binding me to say a certain number of Hail Marys for her if I didn't find any. (I found one - years later on one of the many occasions I have re-read Gina's letter!)

Supper at Emmaus, Hendrick Terbrugghen, c.1621
Scloss Sanssouci, Berlin [Web Gallery of Art]

One thing I learned from the experience in 1982 was that a person may have a deep and strong faith and yet be very fragile. I also learned, as I've learned from many other situation down the years, that you don't have to have experienced the specific pain of the person you are listening to in order to understand or for that person to know that he or she is truly heard and understood.

When Gina then told me the following summer that she thought she didn't have long to live I took her seriously and knew that she was probably right. When I had heard after arriving in her area that  she was in the ICU I didn't want to face the possible consequences of that.

We spoke to each other for maybe two hours about what her death would mean to her and to me. There was nothing morbid about this. Gina truly believed in the reality of the Resurrection. And she had discovered that God is a loving and merciful God, particularly the previous summer.

During these Sundays and weekdays the Gospel is from the Last Supper Discourse in St John's Gospel (John 14-17). Jesus knows he is to suffer an ignominious and utterly painful death. Yet there is nothing morbid about his words. He is calling his closest companions into the intimacy of the Holy Trinity. On that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. And telling them of the Holy Spirit whom he will send Jesus says, You know him, because he will abide with you, and he will be in you. Gina and I at that moment shared in the intimacy of the Holy Trinity through the presence of Jesus the Risen Lord, the kind of intimacy captured by Terbrugghen in his painting above, Supper at Emmaus.

After talking through all of this Gina and I went to a restaurant for lunch where we were joking and laughing, deep in our hearts something of what Jesus promised the Twelve - and us - at the Last Supper: So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you (John 16:22).

I never saw Gina again. She died a few months later, very peacefully. And I know that her parish priest celebrated Mass in her apartment, with her family and some friends present, a day or two before her death.

Because I live, you also will live.

If ye love me, Thomas Tallis

Antiphona ad Communionem  Communion Antiphon John 14:15-16

Si diligitis me, mandata mea servate, dicit Dominus.
If you love me, keep my commandments, says the Lord,
Et ego rogabo Patrem et alium Paraclitmum dabit vobis,
and I will ask the Father and he will send you another Paraclete,
ut maneat vobiscum in aeternum, alleluia.
to abide with you for ever, alleluia.

Translation used by Tallis

If  ye love me, keep my commandments,
and I will pray the Father,and he shall give you another comforter,
that he may 'bide with you forever, e'en the spirit of truth. 

16 May 2014

'Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me?' Sunday Reflections, 5th Sunday of Easter Year A

El Greco, 1610-14, Museo de El Greco, Toledo [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 to his disciples:

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.  And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own; but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; but if you do not, then believe me because of the works themselves. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.

El Greco, 1610-14, Museo de El Greco, Toledo [Web Gallery of Art]

About forty years ago I gave a live-in weekend retreat to students graduating from a high school for girls in the Philippines run by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary. Most of the girls were around 16. I noticed one girl  - I'll call her Lucy -who was small in stature behaving rather immaturely, though not misbehaving, as the weekend went on. At times she would be running around like a child in kindergarten. The retreatants had an opportunity, insofar as time allowed, to meet me individually in the home economics building. As is usual on such occasions tears would be shed. When Lucy noticed tear-stains on some of her classmates she'd laugh at them

But then she came to see me. There was aa life-size inflatable doll in the room. She clung on to it and cried her heart out for five or ten minutes before I could get her to calm down. Then she said to me, Father, my parents give me everything I want. But they never ask me 'How did you do in school today?' And they never even scold me.

Lucy could see clearly, because of its absence in her life, what perhaps most of her companions at their age didn't: the daily reality of the love of their parents, sometimes expressed in scolding.

Nobody likes a scolding but most of us, when we reflect on it, see it as a sign of care, of love. I've told the story of Lucy to many groups of young people over the years and always get nods of recognition.

When Philip asked him, Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied, I wonder if Jesus felt some mild exasperation? This incident reminds me of what the father in the story of the Prodigal Son said to the elder son, Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours (Luke 15:31). The well behaved son had failed to see this, as he failed to see the wonder of this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found (Luke 15:32).

After the sudden death of Fr Patrick Sheehy at the age of 80 in St Columban's, Ireland, in December 1999 his fellow Columbans living there, many of them retired and/or infirm, began to notice that certain little things weren't being done anymore, such as letters and newspapers being delivered to priests unable to get around easily. When Father Pat retired he took it upon himself to do such little things for others, without being asked and without being noticed too much.

It was only in its absence that many saw clearly the quiet, loving thoughtfulness of Father Pat, just as Lucy saw clearly in its absence what she longed for. Father Pat, who had experienced being expelled from China five years after going there, followed by many years of service as a priest in Japan, interrupted for a couple of years because of poor health, was able to choose to show us the Father to his brother priests, without fanfare. Lucy through her immature behaviour was crying out, without being aware of it, to be 'shown the Father'.

We are in the middle of the Easter Season when we celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus, celebrating that fact that, in the words of St Peter in the second reading today, that we are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light (1 Peter 2:9). God's mighty acts are perhaps most often seen in the 'little acts' of those around us.

The readings invite us to see the Father's presence in the daily realities of our lives, the many blessings that come to us through others and that we often don't see clearly as blessings. And the readings invite us to be aware of the many 'Lucys' around us who in one way or another are crying out, Show us the Father.

'Lucy' would be in her mid-50s now. I've no idea what became of her but perhaps each of us might offer a prayer for her.

Antiphona ad Communionem  Cf Jn 15:1,5

Ego sum vitis vera et vos palmites, dicit Dominus;
qui manet in me et ego in eo, hic fecit fructum multum, alleluia.

Communion Antiphon  Cf John 15:1,5

I am the true vine and you are the branches, says the Lord.
Whoever remains in me, and I in him, bears fruit in plenty, alleluia.

14 May 2014

An Ordinary Woman and Mother of God

Holy Family (Barberini  Andrea del Sarto, c.1528
Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Rome [Web Gallery of Art]

Richelle Verdeprado, the editorial assistant of Misyon, the Columban online magazine in the Philippines that I edit, posted a link on Facebook to the article below that we published in the May-June 2004 printed issue. I have always found the writings of Catherine Doherty inspiring. She would very much approve of the 'smell of the sheep' imagery of Pope Francis.

I've highlighted one paragraph in the article because too many times I've heard of Catholics, especially in the Philippines, who may not have enough knowledge of our faith, being led astray by 'Born Again' Christians and who reject our Blessed Mother. If you asked the same persons to reject their own mother, to tear up photos of her, never to speak to her again, they would be horrified.

Adapted from Bogoroditza by Catherine Doherty

Servant of God Catherine Doherty [Wikipedia]

Consider Mary as she really is. Everybody glorifies Our Lady. Of course she is to be glorified. She is the Mother of God. But I would like to tell of her ordinary life. There are many women like me who feel that she is so high up that nobody can touch her. It is true that she is high up, but she is also very ordinary.
What did she do all day? I imagine she washed and scrubbed and cleaned. She was married to a carpenter. She wasn't a big shot in NazarethNazareth was a small town. Joseph wasn't a big shot, just a carpenter. She tended to her husband and Son, especially when he was small. She cooked, she scrubbed and she washed and wove and attended to the garden and did the laundry. Our Lady was the first person who really knew how to do the will of God in its minute details.
I revel in her normality because she is ordinary and at the same time extraordinary. It was an ordinary household and that is a most fantastic thing. Our Lord chose for his mother a working woman; that's what she was, a working woman.
She got up in the morning, and on some days of the week carried the laundry to the pool. The women ofNazareth must have come to her constantly because she was who she was. She must have kept, not a cookie jar, but the Eastern sweets that all the Eastern people love, and children must have come to her.
I think of her in realistic terms, but I also think of her as the woman with the power to stand silently under the cross of her Son, and in some sort of an incredible way, I understand that at that moment she became the mother of all humanity, for whom he died.
She's the woman of speech and she's the woman of silence. She's stronger than an army in battle array and as weak with God as only a woman can be. She dusted and she cleaned. And she cooked and she knew how to weave. She wove his seamless garment. Her life was a sea of small things so infinitely small that they're almost not worth mentioning. The corn had to be ground, her house swept, the meals prepared; day after day the Mother of God did those things.
From her we can learn the quality of listening, and of taking up the words of others as well as the words of God, holding them in our hearts until the Holy Spirit cracks them wide open and gives us the answer as he did to her as her Spouse.
You asked me to explain who Our Lady is. You could say that she's the gate. She's the gate to the way to the Father, because it is through her that Christ came to us and it is through her that we return to him.
Who is Our Lady? A woman like you and me. She is someone to whom my heart goes out all day and who is with me as a friend, and with whom I can talk.
We all should talk about her Son. For you see, she changed his diapers and he drank her milk, and she kissed his boo-boos away like any woman does to a toddler. He scratched himself, so she kissed it away. He went, and he fell and he got up and he grew up, and she probably said, “Eat your porridge,” and she probably said, “Don't forget your sandals. It's wet.”
Who has lived with God as Mary has lived with him? To whom can we go and find out that he is really a man? From whom shall we know the Incarnation better than from the woman who carried him in her womb nine months?
How can anyone talk about throwing out devotions to Our Lady? Do you want to throw out the woman who was pregnant with God and who will never lead you away from him but always to him?
We think of her as the queen of the angels, and queen of the universe, which she is. But you see, God was a carpenter and she was a housewife. And God is in heaven and he still has calloused hands in his glorified body. And she, who also has been assumed into heaven and has a glorified body, still has hands that show she was just a working woman. She is all things to all people because she is the mother of mankind.
How can we not love her? How can we not go to her, run to her? She has the secret of everything, now that she is where she is. And when we worry about some kind of a mystery or have a hang-up on something or other in spiritual matters, why don't we go to her? She'll say, “Oh relax, kiddo. Let us sit down and talk.”
What a strange thing it is that God chose her. Because she is the gate through which he came to us, she is the gate wide open for us to go through to him.

'For how can one speak of Jesus without Mary?

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.