06 May 2016

'You are witnesses of these things.' Sunday Reflections, The Ascension of the Lord, Year C

The Ascension of Christ, Rembrandt, 1636
Alte Pinakothek, Munich [Web Gallery of Art]

The 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)

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And see, I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God.

Seventh Sunday of Easter
Where the Ascension is observed on Ascension Thursday

Readings (New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

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

Responsorial Psalm for the Ascension
(New American Bible: Philippines, USA)

The Sunday on which the Ascension is now celebrated in many countries is also the Church's World Communications Day. The first was in 1967. Jesus tells the disciples in today's Gospel - and through them tell us - You are witnesses of these things. Jesus is asking us to use all modern means of communication so that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.

When I went home to Ireland on vacation from the Philippines in 1994 before beginning six years as vocation director I took a short course for missionaries in the use of computers given by a religious sister who had worked in an African country for many years. She wasn't the best teacher I've ever had in teaching the 'mechanical' basics of her subject but she was a wonderful motivator. Although the internet was still in its infancy she told us stories of how it had helped save lives in the country where she worked.

Some years ago when checking my email in the Philippines I found myself 'chatting' with a friend, a Filipina married to a Westerner and living in her husband's country. I'll call her Maria. It was clear to me very quickly that she was going through a crisis and thinking of doing the worst to herself. At the time she 'hated' everyone except me and 'didn't believe' in God anymore.

I was able to help Maria see that the issue wasn't any of the things she mentioned but was within herself. I also got her to agree to meet a priest in her own area, someone I had never met and still haven't. But I was able to contact him through email, having got his address from someone else whom I have never met in person. 

I learned later that that meeting with the priest was to be a turning point for my Maria. She was able to face the world again with hope and hasn't looked back since.

At the time this happened I had come to know a 16-year-old girl in the Philippines who had been made pregnant by her boyfriend. I'll call her Ana. I'm not sure to what degree she had consented to the activity that led to her carrying a baby. She was from another part of the country but was welcomed by religious sisters who run a home for girls, most of whom have had pretty bad experiences. Ana was was very angry and part of that anger was directed at the baby she was carrying.

I told Maria about Ana. One of the ironies was that Maria couldn't have a child, a great sorrow to her and her husband. Despite her 'not believing' in God I asked her to pray for Ana, something she readily agreed to do, and told her that I would ask Ana to pray for her. When I met Ana a day or two later she too readily accepted her mission of prayer.

Visitation, Luca della Robbia, c.1445
San Giovanni Fuorcivitas, Pistoia, Italy [Web Gallery of Art]

Shortly after that we celebrated the feast of the Visitation. After Mass I asked Ana if she would like me to bless her and the baby in her womb. She was happy with this and later told me that she had felt the baby moving for the first time. More importantly, her anger had disappeared. Some time later she was able to go home to her own family and delivered her baby there.

This incident opened my eyes to the truth of what the Sister who gave us classes on the use of computers and the internet had told us. Here was I at my computer in the Philippines when 'by chance', the 'chance' being undoubtedly the Holy Spirit, giving crisis counselling to a friend on another continent and helping her to meet someone I had never met who could listen to her in person.

Pope Francis, Palo, Leyte, Philippines
17 January 2015 [Wikipedia]

Ascension Sunday this year is the Church's 50th World Communications Day. The theme of the message of Pope Francis is Communication and Mercy: A Fruitful Encounter.

I've added my own emphasis to this paragraph from the
message: Emails, text messages, social networks and chats can also be fully human forms of communication. It is not technology which determines whether or not communication is authentic, but rather the human heart and our capacity to use wisely the means at our disposal. Social networks can facilitate relationships and promote the good of society, but they can also lead to further polarization and division between individuals and groups. The digital world is a public square, a meeting-place where we can either encourage or demean one another, engage in a meaningful discussion or unfair attacks. I pray that this Jubilee Year, lived in mercy, 'may open us to even more fervent dialogue so that we might know and understand one another better; and that it may eliminate every form of closed-mindedness and disrespect, and drive out every form of violence and discrimination' (Misericordiae Vultus, 23). The internet can help us to be better citizens. Access to digital networks entails a responsibility for our neighbour whom we do not see but who is nonetheless real and has a dignity which must be respected. The internet can be used wisely to build a society which is healthy and open to sharing.

My online communication with 'Maria' was fully human and charged with the grandeur of God (Gerard Manley Hopkins). So was my communication with 'Ana' and her unborn child when I blessed them both after Mass on the Feast of the Visitation.

Pope Francis concludes his message with these words (emphasis added): Communication, wherever and however it takes place, has opened up broader horizons for many people. This is a gift of God which involves a great responsibility. I like to refer to this power of communication as 'closeness'. The encounter between communication and mercy will be fruitful to the degree that it generates a closeness which cares, comforts, heals, accompanies and celebrates. In a broken, fragmented and polarized world, to communicate with mercy means to help create a healthy, free and fraternal closeness between the children of God and all our brothers and sisters in the one human family.

Both Maria and Ana experienced the encounter between communication and mercy, one through the internet the other face-to-face. God communicated his merciful love to each.

May all of us accept and use the internet as a gift of God which involves a great responsibility.

Last week I included Portia's speech from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice. Pope Francis quotes from this in his message for today. Above is the speech from a 2004 film production of the play.

Pope Francis: For this reason, I would like to invite all people of good will to rediscover the power of mercy to heal wounded relationships and to restore peace and harmony to families and communities. All of us know how many ways ancient wounds and lingering resentments can entrap individuals and stand in the way of communication and reconciliation. The same holds true for relationships between peoples. In every case, mercy is able to create a new kind of speech and dialogue. Shakespeare put it eloquently when he said: ‘The quality of mercy is not strained. It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven upon the place beneath. It is twice blessed: it blesseth him that gives and him that takes’ (The Merchant of Venice, Act IV, Scene I).

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