Many years' ago I met a priest who used to say: “I hope death will find me alive”. It might sound funny but you and me know it is not. These are very powerful words. Some people die before time. Death find some people already dead. They have given up on life, on hope, on dreams. The Word of God asks us to be always ready… not to die before time.
This was the first image that came to my mind when Fr Ciccone OSM died. I had been with him three times in that past week. Twice talking alone the two of us. Once for a meeting. He was very much alive! In fact, twice, at the diocesan priests' meeting he spoke about retiring because he was 85 years' old. Even last year he came to my office and asked me what he had to do to retire but, at the same time, every time we met he had a new project in mind. Retiring was never an option. Retiring for him probably meant dying before time.
How does today's reading give light to who Fr Angelo 'Nkom'iyahlaba' Ciccone OSM has been among us?
To me, Fr Ciccone OSM taught us about God. We tend to think that some people do good things just because they are good. In the case of Fr Ciccone I think it was much more than that. He was led by faith! He was led both by a good heart and by faith.
He made sure churches will be built for the people to gather, to pray, to celebrate, to grow in faith. Just in the last two – three years since I came to this diocese he asked me to go and bless two of them and kept on mentioning there were more to be blessed and others he wanted to build.
Not only did he build churches but he build the Church! He built our Church in Swaziland. He was always concerned about training new catechists to help our children, youth and adults understand better our faith, grow in faith and celebrate it in their lives. My first year in this diocese he kept on asking me when a diocesan training program would start. Thank God, last year he thanked me for what Fr Ncamiso Vilakati is doing for them!
Fr Ciccone OSM taught us God is father of orphans, father of the poor… who lifts up the poor from the dust. We heard it in the first reading in Hannah's prayer but also in the responsorial Psalm (113)
“He raises the poor from the dust, he lifts the needy from the dunghill,
to give them a place among princes, among princes of his people”
(Psalm 113: 7 – 8)
How many stories we heard these days? How many people could testify not that they made money thanks to Fr Ciccone (probably you had to give him money!!!) but that in key moments of their lives, he was there and rescued them!
Among the poor, he chose the poorest in the country: children, youth and adults living with disabilities. One could say he was the voice of the voiceless for those with disabilities because probably no one more than them has no voice among us.
Fr Ciccone OSM gave them back their dignity, the dignity of a child of God which is denied by many of us. While for some or many, a person with a disability is a problem, a burden, maybe a punishment… Fr Ciccone OSM worked to help us see in each one of them a brother, a sister, a child of God like you and me. Fr Ciccone OSM saw in them, the image of Christ and added a new line to today's passage from the Gospel of Matthew. Where we read I was hungry, I was thirsty, I was naked, he added: I thought I was not able to do things... and you taught me and helped me see I was!
While we are grateful to God and to him for everything he has done in the nearly 60 years he spent in our diocese and country, there is something you need to know. There was in him a kind of “frustration”. In these last three and a half years since I came for the first time to this diocese, I heard him say: “I was able to do a lot for those living with disabilities but never succeeded changing the way society looks at them”. I heard him saying this more than once. Very quickly I was able to understand what he meant. Those living with disabilities have not yet taken their legitimate place in our society, in our families and communities. Many people acknowledge the work Fr Ciccone OSM has done for them but few would probably acknowledge their own hearts have not changed.
I like one of the healings done by Jesus (Mark 3) in which Jesus is in the Synagogue on a Sabbath. There is a sick man. They are looking at him to see if he would heal on a Sabbath. Jesus tells the sick man: “Get up and stand in the middle!” and asks ‘Is it permitted on the Sabbath day to do good, or to do evil; to save life, or to kill?’ They kept quiet. The Gospel says: “Then he (Jesus) looked angrily round at them, grieved to find them so obstinate...” I get the feeling that Fr Ciccone OSM, having put those living with disabilities at the centre, having made them stand for us to see… grieved finding us so obstinate.
If we want to honour his memory... If we want to honor our being Christians in the way Fr Ciccone OSM has taught us, we need to help now continue what he started but also make sure society changes its heart!
In the second reading, Paul, writing to Timothy says: “As for me, my life is already being poured away as a libation, and the time has come for me to depart.” Like Paul, Fr Ciccone OSM knew his time was close. We had spoken about it, the two of us.
Some of you witnessed that, on his last Sunday when he presided Mass and spoke about vocations… He wondered who would then continue preaching the Good news, witnessing to the power of the Gospel who transforms the lives and hearts of many… He asked to pray for vocations.
It was is final message to us. He prepared himself and prepared us. He did not die before time. He remained both alive and ready. His call to heaven came to us when we less expected it but all these days after the accident, I believe Fr Ciccone OSM has been very close to us from heaven, interceding for us, consoling us and making sure we look to the future with confidence, led by the same faith he witnessed among us, faith in the One who is father of the poor and faith in the One who promised to be with us till the end of the time.
Eternal rest grant him O Lord...