Perhaps Not Silver or Gold
Holy Cross Parish, 31 May 2009
I want to thank you all for coming out this evening and providing me with an opportunity to reflect together with you on how best really to be missionaries from home. I think all of us are clear on what it means to be missionaries at home; it’s the “from home” part that gets tricky.
As I say, we know we are called to spread the good news of the Gospel, of our salvation in Christ, the message of God’s love for every person, the Heavenly Father’s love for us now and His love for each and every one of us by name from and for all eternity. We know what that means in terms of handing on the faith to our children (nobody is better than mom and dad are for showing the face of Christ to their own children); we know that we should never be ashamed of our Catholic Faith and always be ready to share with men and women of good will the reason for our hope. We know that this is not so much a preaching thing as a praying thing: it’s not so much a matter of words but of action.
The question for most folks, then, is another. If I haven’t actually been called full time to leave home behind to aid others elsewhere working as a missionary, how do I help from home? What do I do, for example, with all those requests from mission societies which come to me in the mail? Or what might the Papal Representative for the Antilles rightly expect of me when he comes begging?
Right at the outset, I’ll tell you that my response to that question is no doubt a bit different than you might expect. Most people want to know how best to employ that limited part of their budget to help those most in need. The question is fair enough, but I don’t think any of the Apostles would have asked that question and it isn’t the first priority of the Pontifical Mission Societies either.
There are four Pontifical Mission Societies, two of which are no doubt familiar to you, all of which are focused on prayer and sacrifice for the sake of spreading the Gospel. You know the Propagation of the Faith which benefits from the Mission Sunday Collection each October and you know the Holy Childhood Association which encourages little children to make personal sacrifices on behalf of small children their own age such that they too might know Jesus. The third society is St. Peter the Apostle, which works at promoting vocations specifically for the missions, and the fourth society is the Missionary Union, which is even bigger than the other three on prayer and formation in the faith from a missionary point of view.
We can do much good with our material gifts, but our world has as much need of our prayer and of our solidarity. That’s why I gave this little talk a title:
Perhaps Not Silver or Gold
I’m going to read a little reflection after I share with you the familiar passage from the Acts of the Apostles about Sts. Peter and John curing the man who used to sit begging at the Beautiful Gate of the Temple. Thereafter I would love to spend the rest of the time at our disposal for your questions and observations.
This is Acts 3:1-10: “Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at that gate of the temple which is called Beautiful to ask alms of those who entered the temple, he asked for alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, with John, and said, ‘Look at us.’ And he fixed his attention upon them, expecting to receive something from them. But Peter said, ‘I have no silver and gold, but I give you what I have; in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.’ And he took him by the right hand and raised him up; and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and walked and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, and recognized him as the one who sat for alms at the Beautiful Gate of the temple; and they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him.”
Most of the bishops I serve as papal nuncio, there are 18 dioceses and two missions sui iuris which make up the Antilles Episcopal Conference, most of those bishops have tiny dioceses which cannot support themselves either financially or in terms of vocations. Six of them have less than 10,000 Catholics and no real prospect for growth unless they were able by massive conversions to the Catholic Faith to move from being 8% or less of the population of their tiny islands to let’s say 75%. The Caribbean cannot really expect to grow in population as the options for development or employment are not all that great: tourism is not labor intensive enough and off-shore banking, which doesn’t benefit average folks anyway, seems to be on its way out.
Most of my islands live from what are called remittances: money that family from elsewhere (from Europe, Canada or the United States) sends back to the folks at home. If we leave Guyana and Suriname, on the South American continent, out of the equation, which are poor because they are under populated though rich in natural resources in need of a population to develop them, my islands have lots in common with the plains states. Tell me something upbeat about future options for Kansas, Nebraska and the Dakotas outside of the major population centers and I’ll buy you a plane ticket to come down our way for the time needed to solve problems for the future of our region, or maybe just one problem, namely how do you keep young and talented people from moving elsewhere to seek their fortune.
My Caribbean does not know the misery of Haiti; a few of the islands have a higher cost of living index than the United States (it’s not uncommon for people from Barbados to retire from there to the U.S.). Despite all the violence associated with gangs, with the drugs and arms trade, we’re safer than most any place in Latin America. Folks in the Caribbean are terribly impressed by our tornadoes, but hurricanes probably do more damage each year and they are something most of my islands have to contend with, earthquakes do their fair amount of damage as well, and although the devastation caused by Montserrat’s volcano is legend, other islands have known past events and cannot exclude future problems with mountains named La Soufriere spouting off. Believe it or not, the damage done to historical buildings by termites or discovering that years ago they didn’t bother with putting foundations under some of the big beautiful churches are probably even more daunting. So is the question concerning what to do with all those schools built decades ago by Dutch, Irish and French missionaries, which need repairs, modernization, but more importantly, need the same kind of priests, religious brothers and sisters from the Old Country that staffed them in the old days and gave those who are now the senior citizens of the islands a great education and an even better foundation in their faith. The teaching brothers and sisters of once upon a time are no more.
You may rightly ask “Archbishop, what can we do to help our fellow Catholics in the Antilles?” I could respond and say, well St. George’s in Grenada still hasn’t got things back together since hurricane Ivan hit them in September 2004, Dominica is probably the least developed of the islands and you have helped two years running now with rebuilding a little chapel on the west coast, the Cathedral parish of Roseau has been saving for years to repair termite damage only to find out that one of the islands historic buildings has no foundations under it, I’ve been able to funnel some money to a spunky little Sister of Saint Joseph of Cluny in Portsmouth, who won’t wait for government money to repair a Catholic school severely damaged by an earthquake in November of 2004, the litany could go on and on, and sometimes you just like to help and give someone a one time opportunity for studies or something. I have a small charity in London which will give me small amounts of money for special projects which I recommend to them and that’s just fine. I’m terribly impressed by Father Gregory Ramkissoon’s work called “Mustardseed”, which started in Kingston, Jamaica and reaches out to many other places to care for abandoned children, sometimes retarded, sometimes with severe birth defects, many times HIV positive from their mother’s womb.
If that is something which you want to do, I’ll be most happy to encourage you. Personally, I would be remiss however if I didn’t point out the need my people have for your daily prayer. Money will not solve the lack of vocations to the priesthood; money will not provide the religious women needed to promote girls and young women in a society where more than 80% of the children are born out of wedlock. I have a group of young men in Trinidad who are determined to become religious brothers some day and who want to devote their talents to counseling men. They have a building donated for their use which they would like to run as an institute to teach men how to be responsible, how to be good husbands and fathers. I don’t think it’s as simple as finding them the cash to cover their operating expenses. Good work might be done, but the whole project might not last longer than the life and strength of these five now young and zealous men will allow; they need prayer and the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Over a hundred years ago one of the Italian priest founders of the Missionary Union wrote about how material generosity alone to the missions might also be a source of scandal or at least confuse people in terms of how Church is supposed to work.
While not wanting to discourage your material generosity in the least, I would simply like to ask you for something more. Pray and sacrifice for the spread of the Gospel! Make Mission Sunday each October something bigger, even more for Holy Cross Parish by way of information about the missions and by way of prayer! If Holy Childhood is not a going thing in the grade school and in public school religion, ask the diocesan director of the Pontifical Mission Societies to help you out with materials. I think the national office in New York has a pretty good website as well to help you with materials that can be downloaded.
The diocese of Wichita has been blessed in recent years with vocations to the priesthood and will no doubt help both Dodge City and Salina with their shortage of priests; that is missionary and that is great too. Pray also for missionary vocations from your parish, from your families and from your homes as well. The Antilles need your intercession before God to raise up vocations from their midst, but for now and immediately they could really use priests in many places and sisters in goodly numbers everywhere willing to give them a jump start. The archdiocese of Port of Spain, Trinidad, needs 30 priests today to cover its parishes and missions adequately and tomorrow will need even more. At one ordination per year for a diocese with nearly 300,000 Catholics, the need is urgent.
I don’t know if I can adequately explain my point to you, because it’s something I never experienced in Rwanda and it’s something I’d never really thought about until I arrived in the Caribbean. The closest thing I can come to by way of comparison would be the dilemma faced by those little German farm communities which almost every diocese here in the plains states has. Call that magnificent church out in the middle of nowhere “Cathedral of the Plains” or “Cathedral of the Prairie”, it is a monument to the sacrificial faith of people long since laid to rest in the cemetery. What they built with lots of “sweat equity” may be beyond the means of their great grandchildren to maintain. The parish might be smaller than back then and people’s priorities are certainly different. If you just restore the building with outside help, you may have created a museum to the memory of the pioneers and done little to show them the face of Christ. What to do? The Bishop of Paramaribo, Suriname, in consultation with his people, has made some choices. The grand old wooden cathedral with all the hand carving in cedar gets restored; the pilgrimage site to the place where Blessed Peter Donders gave his life in service to lepers is also a priority; the old Dutch Redemptorist house on main street must now go to others and be used for other purposes; all those wood frame school buildings will just have to wait.
Maybe it is best to let you ask questions or comment. The point I want to make is a very subtle one which many of the people in my territory do not comprehend. Let it suffice for me to say that I do not wish to discourage your generosity from the point of view of money, but I’d love to see Holy Cross Parish a powerhouse of pray for the spread of the Gospel. The Caribbean needs your prayers for vocations, for the guidance of the Holy Spirit on how best to be Catholic in troubled times.
Europe after World War II was a total disaster not only because of all the buildings destroyed, but because of the lives destroyed as well. Out of the ashes came a lively and zealous generation of Catholics, who restored what had been built up over centuries, but also who sent forth in great numbers missionaries who gifted other peoples with the faith. Knowledge of Jesus Christ, faith in the power of His Holy Name to liberate and save, is what counts. Four centuries earlier, St. Francis Xavier, the Patron of the Missions, expressed in a letter to his superior, St. Ignatius of Loyola, his desire to run through the corridors of Europe’s universities like a mad man shouting at people to think less of the education they so highly prized and more of their brothers and sisters who were dying all over the world without knowing Christ, without being baptized.
Peter and John gave the once crippled man something to jump, shout and dance about. They gave him Jesus. Your family, your neighborhood, your parish, our world await the same from you as you mission from home like St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, the Patroness of the Missions.