'Not so among you...'

(From a CAFOD post on Twitter)
Saturday we had the first annual lecture in memory of one of my predecessors in the diocese of Manzini: Bishop Mandlenkosi Zwane. I was asked to offer a prayer and reflection at the beginning of our gathering. The text below followed the reading of Matthew 25: 31 - 40

* * * * *

A very familiar text. A very challenging one too as Jesus identifies himself with those who are hungry, thirsty, the strangers, naked, sick and in prison.

In the Catholic Church we see priests as “alter Christus” (another Christ). The phrase alter Christus is most specifically applied to the priest when he celebrates the sacraments, and especially the Eucharist, so that when a priest celebrates the Eucharist it is Christ who transforms the bread and wine through the priest.

The passage from Matthew, which we have read, moves our eyes to other Christs. It is very powerful because this image of Christ does not come from the tradition or reflection of the Church like the previous one but from Jesus himself.

Mother Theresa of Calcutta always told the members of her Religious community to remember the “Gospel on Five Fingers.” She would say the words, “You did it to Me,” as she held up each finger of her hand. 

Seeing Christ in each person, particularly in those who suffer, continues to trigger the sharing of our material and spiritual gifts... 

* * *

At the same time, we start wondering... “why is this happening?”. Why is this person hungry? Why is it that this person has not enough to live? Why is Christ suffering in the hungry, the thristy, the stranger, the sick...? Why is Christ still suffering today?

If you are following the daily arrival of people to the coasts of Italy, risking their lives in the process... you cannot but ask “why are they doing that? Why do they risk so much?”

When appointed Bishop, you are asked (you do not have to) to draw a coat-of-arms and choose a motto. Mine is “Livi laba yinyama”, “The Word became flesh” taken from John 1:14. 

Bishop Zwane's motto was taken from John 10:10 and it is written outside the Catholic Centre: “that they might have life”. The full sentence says: “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I have come so that they may have life and have it to the full.” 

His coat-of-arms had a Bible, a sign that it is from the Word that life to the full comes.

Our asking “why” comes from our believe in these words from the Lord and therefore we ask ourselves: “what is preventing our brothers and sisters from having life and life to the full?; what is preventing them from living with the dignity of a child of God”. 

We ask all this because each person has been created in God's image and that image is being affected, is being hurt, is being deformed or not fully manifested.

* * *

I would say this is what we would normally identify as the service of Justice and Peace in our Church. Caritas and Justice and Peace work together because while Caritas in our diocese tries to respond to the immediate needs of our brothers and sisters (and you can clearly see that in our country) Justice and Peace helps us make sure that we address the reasons of their suffering. 

As the gospel opens our eyes and hearts to the suffering of Christ in the lives of so many, we want not only to reduce the amount of suffering but to put an end to it completely. 

We want not only to “wipe the face of Jesus” like we say at the sixth station of the way of the cross (by the way, it is from the tradition of the church and not from the gospels) but to stop Him from carrying the cross altogether. 

One could even say that the work of Justice and Peace is “common sense”. If you have a headache every day, after taking an aspirin for a few days... you ask yourself why you have a headache!

* * *

Two things I believe we need to keep in mind:

The first is that, unfortunately, we sometimes prefer not to ask too many questions to avoid getting into trouble. Children, as they grow up, start asking: why? And we finish by saying: “because I say so”, “wait until you grow up”, “go and watch TV”

The same with us adults. Asking “why” might make us uncomfortable. It is attributed to Helder Camara the famous statement: "When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist." He was the Catholic Archbishop of Olinda and Recife (Brazil) serving from 1964 to 1985.

We need to ask “why” all the time or we will keep on perpetuating the same sufferings in the life of our brothers and sisters.

The second is that, we need to remember that first of all we need to look at our own life, we need to look at the life of our Church or churches and ask ourselves: are we any different from the society we live in? 

In the Catholic Church, on the very first day of the Lenten Season (those forty days that prepare us for our Easter feast) we gather for the celebration of the ashes. We then come to the priest to be marked with the ashes. We hear the priest telling us: “repent!”. No one goes out with the ashes on the forehead and points a finger to someone else saying: “did you hear what the priest just told you?”

While Mother Theresa talks of the gospel of five fingers, I would like you to go with another image: the gospel of four fingers. It also comes from the Gospel of Matthew (20: 24 – 25). Jesus says: ‘You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt. Among you this is not to happen.'
“Not so among you”
Please do remember this

In other words: 
  • Are our initiatives and structures lifting up the poor or generating new ones? Are we, as a Church or churches, adding more suffering to the lives of the poor? 
  • Each year in December we take time to reflect on the reality of abuse in our country and the world. We should therefore not only “look outside” to society but to us in the church and ask “are we protecting enough our children, our youth, our women from abuse or are we generating new victims?”. The Catholic Church learnt the hard way the consequences of not doing so.
  • Particularly this year, I regularly go back to the image of living in fear. Every now and again a mother or a grandmother comes to me and says: “Bishop, I just cannot open my mouth at home. My son / daughter has such a bad temper...” but it could also be the other way round, the badtemper of parents or grandparents make children afraid.
    Then I have to ask myself... what about me? Are priests free to talk or the bishop does not allow them to? Are our lay people free to talk in our parishes or father does not allow them to? Are our parishes different from our society or just repeat the same pattern of power?

This for me is becoming more and more important because if we do not examine our own life, the life of our parishes, Christian communities, churches, we might be told Jesus' words about the Pharisees: “You must therefore do and observe what they tell you; but do not be guided by what they do, since they do not practise what they preach. They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on people’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!” (Mt 23: 3 – 4)

Each one of us is part of this society so... if it generates poor, if it generates victims of abuse, if it is sick with corruption... we need to ask ourselves how responsible we are for this.

In the early 2000 (don't remember if it was 2001 or 2002), the Southern African Catholic Bishops' Conference (SACBC) worked in this line asking each Catholic to commit himself / herself against any form of corruption. 

A commitment form was issued. It said something like: in the name of my faith in Jesus Christ I commit myself... not to give or receive a bribe... not to steal, buy or sell stolen goods... if I borrow money to give it back... 

It was to be read at Mass and people would be invited to stand up and sign it. 

First challenge: who should lead in signing? The priests, of course but were we ready to commit ourselves? 

Then, at a Mass of five or six hundred people less than ten stood up to sign after the priest.

The good news was that people were honest enough not to sign and do the opposite. The bad news was that we realized how responsible we were for the sickness of our society.

* * *

I am grateful to JPIC for the initiative to honour one of my predecessors with an annual lecture to be held in his name. I would suggest we keep his motto as the annual theme: “that they may have life”.

As we start this year an annual lecture in memory of Bishop Mandlenkosi Zwane, I cannot but invite you (my brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church particularly) to reflect on the blessings this diocese has received. For 35 years (4 led by Bishop Zwane and 31 by Bishop Ndlovu) this diocese was led by shepherds committed to JPIC deeply inspired by the Gospel.

Have these 35 years opened our eyes and hearts to who we are as a Church? Are our sodalities, parishes, catechism classes, liturgies, priests... actively involved in JPIC or is it something we like to hear from the bishop but not make it part of our faith? 

Hope and pray these annual lectures help us deepen in us the way we are called to live the Gospel, so that more and more, we become a blessing to this beautiful country and work together to touch the lives of all with the Good News of Jesus Christ who came so that we may have life and life to the full.
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