27 September 2014

Happy Birthday, Louilla 'Lala' Vicente!

Lala, with Jordan

I first wrote the post below for the short-lived Negros Times in October 2008. I have re-posted it a number of times because Lala's story is one that should be told over and over again. Today she has been celebrating her 35th birthday on a pilgrimage to Lipa City, Batangas, south-east of Manila, with members of Faith and Light, which holds a pilgrimage every year on or near the Feast of the Nativity of Mary.  No doubt, there will be something to mark the occasion at Punla, Ang Arko, where Lala lives, the only L'Arche community in the Philippines, in Cainta, Rizal, part of the metropolitan sprawl of Manila. L'Arche, which might be called the 'older sister' of Faith and Light, is celebrating its Golden Jubilee this year.

The Pope's Universal Prayer Intention for September is: That the mentally disabled may receive the love and help they need for a dignified life. The truth is that persons with mental or learning disabilities can teach the rest of us about the dignity of life, as the photo above of Lala helping Jordan with his meal shows.

St Sebastian Cathedral, Lipa City, Philippines [Wikipedia]

Let us show our service to the poor, then, with renewed ardour in our hearts, seeking out above all any abandoned people, since they are given to us as lords and patrons. (St Vincent de Paul, used in the Office of Readings for his feast day, today.)

Both Lala and Queen Elizabeth II have have two birthdays, the real one and the official one. Lala’s official birthday is 27 September, the feast day of St Vincent de Paul, and she turns 35 today. Queen Elizabeth’s official birthday is celebrated in 53 Commonwealth countries, but not on the same date. Only the Falkland Islands observes her official birthday on her real one, 21 April. In the United Kingdom the Queen’s official birthday can be on the first, second or third Saturday in June. She turned 88 on her last birthday.

While there’s no confusion about the date of birth of Queen Elizabeth, there is about that of Lala. The young Princess Elizabeth was born in a palace in London. Lala was found shortly after birth in a trashcan in Cebu City in the central Philippines. Those who found her took her to the Asilo De La Milagrosa, the orphanage of the Daughters of Charity there. The Sisters noticed that the little girl had Trisomy 21 (Down Syndrome) and took her in and raised her. Since they didn’t know who her parents were they had to choose a name for her.

St Vincent de Paul (24 April 1581 - 27 September 1660)

The Sisters chose 'Vicente' as her family name, in honor of St Vincent de Paul, and 'Louilla' as her Christian name, in honor of St Louise de Marillac. The two saints founded the Daughters of Charity in France in 1633. Lala, as all her friends know her, probably has something else in common with St Louise. She was almost certainly born out of wedlock, as the saint was, and, like St Louise, never knew her mother. I suspect that Lala’s mother, probably very young and unmarried, panicked – this possibly added to when she saw that her daughter wasn’t 'normal' - and left her baby where someone could find her and take care of her.

St Louise de Marillac (15 August 1591 - 15 March 1660)

I first met Lala in Cebu in 1992 at a Faith and Light celebration. We had just begun a community there, after a retreat given by the co-founder of the movement, Jean Vanier, a Canadian layman, in Holy Family Retreat House, Cebu City, in October 1991. During the retreat he gave a public talk in the auditorium of St Theresa’s College, as I recall, and a group of interested people got together after that. The gathering at which Lala was present included members of Faith and Light from Manila who had come to tell us more about the movement.

I could see immediately that Lala had a special gift – she’s a natural 'ice-breaker'. Though she seldom says anything, she lights up any group into which she comes, unless she’s in a bad mood, which happens from time to time.

Lala became a member of our Faith and Light community in Cebu but I lost contact with her when I went to Lianga, Surigao del Sur, in 1993 as parish priest and to Manila the following year to become vocation director of the Columbans. But one day when I visited the L’Arche community in Cainta, Rizal, known as 'Ang Arko', I was surprised to see Lala there. L’Arche, the French for 'The Ark' as in Noah’s Ark, was founded by Jean Vanier, in 1964 when he invited two men with learning disabilities, Raphael Simi and Philippe Seux, who had been living in an institution, to join him in a small cottage he had bought and was renovating in the town of Trosly-Breuil, France. Jean had no intention of founding anything, but he realized very quickly that he had made a commitment to these two men. One of them, I forget which, chose to live independently some years later, something he could never have done had he stayed not met Jean. Out of these small beginnings has grown an international movement of about 130 residential communities where those with learning disabilities are enabled to live in a family-type situation and to develop their abilities to the greatest extent possible.

Jordan and Raymon, now young men, were welcomed by Ang Arko when they were very young. Both have physical as well as learning disabilities. The original house was in Manila but the community moved later to Cainta.

Lala and Hachiko, each looking more content than the other!

In Holy Week 2001 I attended the international pilgrimage of Faith and Light to Lourdes as chaplain to the group from the Philippines. Lala was one of the twelve or so Filipinos.

The Easter Vigil was celebrated in the underground basilica. Some of the Old Testament Vigil readings were dramatized. During the account of creation when the words 'God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him' were read, a spotlight shone on a young man in a wheelchair. But what moved me most was when 'Lala' was part of a group dramatizing the reading of the Exodus.

I simply marveled at the fact that a young woman who should never have been born, according to the 'wisdom' of so many, left after birth among garbage, was on the other side of the world helping to proclaim the Word of God to thousands of people, many like herself, and doing so with the joy that permeates her soul.

Queen Elizabeth, Queen of Canada, in Toronto in 2007(Ever since I was a small child I've just loved the scarlet jackets of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. I used to draw Mounties with crayons but never evolved into an El Greco or a Van Gogh.)

Queen Elizabeth has been blessed by God with a long and healthy life, in which she continues to serve her people with dignity. Though Queen Elizabeth is among the richest people in the world, Lala, also with her two birthdays, enjoys even greater riches, because the words of Mary’s prayer, the Magnificat, have been revealed in her life: 'God has lifted up the lowly'.

The Visitation, El Greco painted 1610-13. (From Web Gallery of Art.)

Magnificat, (Luke 1:46-55) by Marco Frisina, an Italian priest based in the Vatican

Magnificat anima mea Dominum,
et exsultavit spiritus meus in Deo salvatore meo,
quia respexit humilitatem ancillae suae.
Ecce enim ex hoc beatam me dicent omnes generationes,
quia fecit mihi magna,
qui potens est,
et sanctum nomen eius,
et misericordia eius in progenies et progenies
timentibus eum.
Fecit potentiam in brachio suo,
dispersit superbos mente cordis sui;
deposuit potentes de sede
et exaltavit humiles;
esurientes implevit bonis
et divites dimisit inanes.
Suscepit Israel puerum suum,
recordatus misericordiae,
sicut locutus est ad patres nostros,
Abraham et semini eius in saecula

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children for ever.

'The clouds parted and Your light, oh Lord, shone down upon us.'

26 September 2014

Columban Fr John Griffin RIP

Fr John Griffin (1927 - 2014)

Columban Fr John Griffin died in Wellington, New Zealand, 25 September 2014.  Here is an article about him written by his fellow Columban and New Zealander, Fr Michael Gormly, from the website of the Columbans in Australia and New Zealand and published in 2010. Fr Gormley has added some details in the obituary he sent out.

Father John Griffin was a missionary priest blessed with an engaging personality and relentless charm. His friendly, positive and expansive spirit influenced people in many mission situations. Throughout his career blessings emerged from family, friends, names, faces, travel, cultures, languages and music. 

His travelling violin played a part too. He was a fiddler on the roof, making music, telling stories, bringing inspiration and hope to others. Faith came wrapped in warm-hearted affability.

Father Gormley describes Father John as 'a fiddler on the roof'. The late priest liked to play music from Fiddler on the Roof.
Father John, born in Timaru, New Zealand,  in 1927 commenced his missionary journey as a youthful volunteer in 1944. His theological studies were completed at Corpus Christi, Melbourne, with ordination sixty years ago, in 1950, at Dunedin.

Sacred Heart Basilica, Timaru, New Zealand [Wikipedia]

His first mission assignment was to the Philippines, to the province of Zambales, north-west of Manila. He first grappled with the intricacies of Ilokano, a language brought by migrants from provinces in Northern Luzon. He was to work in Ilokano parishes in the Diocese of Iba for twenty years.

San Narciso, Zambales, Diocese of Iba, where Fr Griffin was parish priest [Wikipedia]

A medical emergency in 1970 sent Father John home to New Zealand for the amputation of his right leg due to cancer. The medical specialist spoke of a choice, 'Your leg or your life". With an artificial limb, plus a car adapted to his needs, he joined the mission education team based in Lower Hutt.

Lower Hutt from the air, looking eastwards [Wikipedia]

In 1974 he was nominated by the Bishops' Conference to head the National Missions Office. For ten years he brought his talent, charms and enthusiasm to promoting the mission cause in all corners of the country. In addition he established close personal contacts with Kiwi missionaries across the world.

Santiago, Chile [Wikipedia]

Next, Father John volunteered to serve in Latin America, learn Spanish and settle in Chile. For ten years he assisted the Columban team in the capital, Santiago. On his return to New Zealand in 1995, he moved around the Diocese of Auckland with a message of mission awareness. He made a deliberate effort to keep mission alive in the local church. In retirement at the Columban Mission Centre he was by no means house-bound. Family, friends and colleagues enjoyed his company, visits, phone calls and emails.

Ageing and a loss of mobility led to dedicated healthcare and professional nursing at the Aroha Centre for the Elderly. He spoke of his final blessings In terms of ‘aroha’ – warm care and attention based on love and respect.
Father John Griffin died peacefully in Wellington, New Zealand, on 25 September 2014, remembered as a gifted missionary priest with a remarkable interest and concern for people. One tribute says it well: 'He arrived among us bringing short moments of joy and encouragement; he departed leaving long memories of friendship and celebration.'

Santiago Cathedral at night [Wikipedia]

In reviewing his life, Father John recalls wisdom learned as a youth. 'You will receive much more than you will give; you will learn much more than you will teach'. He has no doubt that learning that truth and humbly accepting it has been the greatest experience of his life.

Praise to the Holiest, by Blessed John Cardinal Newman
Sacred Heart Basilica, Timaru, New Zealand


Father John, a tall, handsome, distinguished-looking and very kind man, wrote an amusing account of the unexpected obstacles he met while travelling from Australia to New Zealand for his ordination in 1950 in Ordination Misadventures.

San Alberto Hurtado SJ, Chile's second saint

Father John also wrote an article on San Alberto Hurtado SJ which we have used a number of times in MISYONonline.com, A priest, I bless you - Alberto.

In that article Father John writes about the Hogar de Cristo (Home of Christ) founded by the saint. May he join San Alberto in the Hogar that Christ has prepared for us all.

25 September 2014

"He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went." Sunday Reflections, 26th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A

St Matthew, El Greco, 1610-14
Museo de El Greco, Toledo, Spain [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 the chief priest and the elders of the people:

“What do you think? A man had two sons; he went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went. The father went to the second and said the same; and he answered, ‘I go, sir’; but he did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” They said, “The first.” Jesus said to them, “Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are going into the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you in the way of righteousness and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes believed him; and even after you saw it, you did not change your minds and believe him.

The above scene, at the Coliseum in Rome, comes shortly before the end of the 1983 made-for-TV move, The Scarlet and the Black, which tells the true World War II story of Vatican-based Irish priest Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty, known as 'The Vatican Pimpernel' and played here by Gregory Peck, and Colonel Herbert Kappler, head of the Gestapo in Rome during the Nazi occupation from September 1943 till June 1944, played by Christopher Plummer. The priest has managed to save the lives of many Allied soldiers and others, getting under the skin of Kappler.

When the German knows that the Allies are about to liberate Rome he sends for the Irishman at night, guaranteeing his safety. The Wikipedia article on the movie tells us what happens after their exchange of 'pleasantries' above. 

Colonel Kappler worries for his family's safety from vengeful partisans, and, in a one-to-one meeting with O'Flaherty, asks him to save his family, appealing to the same values that motivated O'Flaherty to save so many others. The Monsignor, however, refuses, disbelieving that after all the Colonel has done and all the atrocities he is responsible for, he could expect mercy and forgiveness automatically, simply because he asked for it, and walks away in disgust . . .

Kappler is captured in 1945 and questioned by the Allies. In the course of his interrogation, he is informed that his wife and children were smuggled out of Italy and escaped unharmed into Switzerland. Upon being asked who helped them, Kappler realizes who it must have been, but responds simply that he does not know.

At the very end we read on the screen: After the liberation Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty was honored by Italy, Canada and Australia, given the U.S. Medal of Freedom and made a Commander of the British Empire.

Herbert Kappler was sentenced to life imprisonment for war crimes. In the long years that followed in his Italian prison, Kappler had only one visitor. Every month, year in and year out, O'Flaherty came to see him.

In 1959 the former head of the dreaded Gestapo in Rome was [received] into the Catholic faith at the hand of the Irish priest.

The real Monsignor Hugh O'Flaherty (1898 - 1963) [Wikipedia]

[You can view the whole scene between the Colonel Kappler and Monsignor O'Flaherty on Gloria TV here, starting at 06.10. The whole movie is available on Gloria TV in ten segments.]

St Paul tells us in the Second Reading, Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. The priest has been putting his life at risk time and again to save the lives of others, while the soldier has been taking the lives of others. But now Kappler looks beyond himself and wants to save the lives of his wife and two children.

St Paul tells us that Christ Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a slave. Kappler in a real sense can be said to have emptied himself when he compares himself to a beggar and lame dog as he requests the priest to help his wife and children get to safety. Saving others is all part of your faith, he says to the priest. Brotherly love and forgiveness - that's the other half of what you believe.

When the priest storms off with I'll see you in hell first! Kappler says to himself, You're no different from anyone else. Your talk means nothing. Charity, forgiveness, mercy - it's all lies.

But when Kappler is being interrogated by officials of the Allies [here from 1:30 to 3:06]  we discover that the Irish priest too had emptied himself by overcoming his anger at the request to help his enemy's family to escape, and by enabling them to get to Switzerland. 

Very few of us will have to face the kind of danger that Monsignor O'Flaherty faced. But every day we have to make choices, often between good and bad. The choice to forgive his enemy that the Irish priest made is the kind of choice that faces all of us, even if the perceived crime or 'crime' of our enemy or 'enemy' is rarely on the scale of those of Colonel Kappler. But the latter, in his need, felt the stirrings of hope in his heart, the stirrings of faith in a merciful God, when he approached his nemesis with his plea. 

Those stirrings were dashed by the priest's angry refusal. Charity, forgiveness, mercy - it's all lies. But those stirrings were raised again when he learned that his wife and children were safe and knew that only one person could have seen to that. Then he knew he was wrong when he said, Charity, forgiveness, mercy - it's all lies. Now he knew it was all true.

I don't know if the Irish priest was familiar with these words of St Caesarius of Arles (c.470 - 27 August 542): Whenever you love brothers or sisters you love friends, for they are already with you, joined to you in Catholic unity. If they live virtuously you love them as people who have been changed from enemies into brothers and sisters. But suppose you love people who do not yet believe in Christ, or if they do, yet believe as the devil believes - they believe in Christ but still do not love him. You must love just the same, you must love even people like that, you must love them as brothers and sisters. They are not such yet, but you must love them so that they become such through your kindness. All our love, then, must be fraternal.

Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘I will not’; but later he changed his mind and went.

[You can read a fine article by William Doino Jr published in First Things, November 2013: Hugh O'Flaherty, Ireland's Shining Priest.]

Antiphona ad communionem   Communion Antiphon Cf Ps 118 [119]:49-50

Memento verbi tui servo tuo, Domine,
Remember your word to your servant, O Lord,
in quo mihi spem dedisti;
by which you have given me hope.
haec me consolata est in humilitate mea.
This is my comfort when I am brought low.

Persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria

Though the video above was uploaded in 2010 it shows what many Christians in Iraq have been suffering in recent years. As we continue to pray for the Christians in Iraq and Syria, many of whom have been driven in the last two months or so from the ancestral lands, may we and they find hope in the suffering of Christians and Muslims in the post-World War II decades in Albania, a country that is now free.

Last Sunday Pope Francis, before celebrating Evening Prayer in St Paul's Cathedral, Tirana, was moved as he listened to the testimony [video below] of Fr Ernest Simoni, 84, and Sister Marije Kaleta, 85, who had survived that persecution. To hear a martyr talk about his own martyrdom is intense, the Pope told journalists on the papal plane back to Rome the same evening. I think all of us there were moved, all of us.

23 September 2014

Pope Francis meets survivors of persecution in Albania

Rome-based Catholic news agency Zenit carries a story datelined Tirana, 22 September, PopeWeeps Upon Hearing Witness of Religious Persecution in Albania. The article reports: Fr Ernesto Simoni Troshani, an 84-year-old diocesan priest, recalled when the Communist party came to power and began detaining and murdering priests, some he said who died saying 'Long live Christ the King'. He also said that his diocesan superiors were killed by firing squad . . . After his witness, Fr. Troshani approached the Holy Father and knelt, kissing his ring. The Pope, visibly moved by his testimony, wept and held the priest in a long embrace.

Sr Maria Kaleta, an Albanian, spoke of extremely difficult decisions that Christians sometime had to make. She recounted how a woman from a communist family asked her about seeking baptism for her child. Sr Kaleta said she feared that it was a trap but nonetheless, brought some water and baptized the child. During that period, she remembered her desire to go to Mass, to receive the Sacraments.

Original fresco of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Genazzano, Italy [Wikipedia]

Our Lady of Good Counsel is the Patron of Albania. It was a copy of the fresco above that the bishops of the country gave to Pope Francis as a gift.

In his homily at Mass in Mother Teresa Square, Tirana, on Sunday Pope Francis said [emphasis added]:

Recalling the decades of atrocious suffering and harsh persecutions against Catholics, Orthodox and Muslims, we can say that Albania was a land of martyrs: many bishops, priests, men and women religious, laity, and clerics and ministers of other religions paid for their fidelity with their lives. Demonstrations of great courage and constancy in the profession of the faith are not lacking. How many Christians did not succumb when threatened, but persevered without wavering on the path they had undertaken! 

I stand spiritually at that wall of the cemetery of Scutari, a symbolic place of the martyrdom of Catholics before the firing squads, and with profound emotion I place the flower of my prayer and of my grateful and undying remembrance. The Lord was close to you, dear brothers and sisters, to sustain you; he led you and consoled you and in the end he has raised you up on eagle’s wings as he did for the ancient people of Israel, as we heard in the First Reading. The eagle, depicted on your nation’s flag, calls to mind hope, and the need to always place your trust in God, who does not lead us astray and who is ever at our side, especially in moments of difficulty.

National Flag of Albania [Wikipedia]

The readings used at the Mass were not those of the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time Year A but Exodus 19:3, 4b-6a, 7-8, Romans 15:14-21 and Luke 10: 1-9, 17-20. In the reading from Exodus God reminds Moses how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. The eagle is a national symbol of Albania and Pope Francis referred to this in his homily:

The Lord was close to you, dear brothers and sisters, to sustain you; he led you and consoled you and in the end he has raised you up on eagle’s wings as he did for the ancient people of Israel, as we heard in the First Reading. The eagle, depicted on your nation’s flag, calls to mind hope, and the need to always place your trust in God, who does not lead us astray and who is ever at our side, especially in moments of difficulty.

The Pope calls on young Albanians to be like the seventy-two disciples in the Gospel and, rooted in the memory of their own experience, to be missionaries to the rest of Europe:

Today, I have come to thank you for your witness and also to encourage you to cultivate hope among yourselves and within your hearts. Never forget the eagle! The eagle does not forget its nest, but flies into the heights. All of you, fly into the heights! Go high! I have also come to involve the young generations; to nourish you assiduously on the Word of God, opening your hearts to Christ, to the Gospel, to an encounter with God, to an encounter with one another, as you are already doing and by which you witness to the whole of Europe.

And St Paul says in the Second Reading:

For I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me to win obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God, so that from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ.

The Roman Province of Illyricum included much of today's Albania.

May the Resurrection of the Church in Albania be a source of hope for Catholics and other Christians being persecuted for their faith in other parts of the world, particularly in Iraq and Syria where in recent months Christians have been driven from their ancestral homelands, and in North Korea that in many ways resembles Albania under dictator Enver Hoxha.