5th Sunday of Easter 2014
|Back in the day! 1984|
The first reading from Acts 6 became a defining passage of Scripture at a defining moment in my life as a priest. I had already been in Tanzania a couple of years when I was appointed Parish Priest of Galapo and over those years it became increasingly clear that I wasn't fitting in to the model of the missionary church that I found there.
From the 1960's it was understood that you couldn't preach the gospel to empty stomachs and so it was necessary to feed the hungry before preaching to them. This is in keeping with the concern that Jesus had for the hungry when he multiplied the loaves and fish, though I think He fed them after they had listened to Him preach. The problem in Tanzania was that the hunger never went away and the material development of the people seemed to become the dominant feature of missionary life - not that the spiritual ministry didn't exist but it seemed to have become less central.
I found myself out of place in this environment, having no material skills at all and the people wondered why I wasn't building, farming, digging wells etc. It was around this time that I became aware of Acts 6 and the crisis that arose in the early Church. The apostles were overwhelmed with the distribution of food that was demanding so much of their attention that the preaching of the Gospel was put at risk.
The Church then discovered the importance of the various roles that ministers could and should fulfill in the community life. People were chosen to look after the material needs and the apostles devoted themselves to "prayer and the service of the word".
All the different ministries, roles, services are expressions of the one priesthood, the one mission of Christ. As Peter points out we are "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a consecrated nation, a people set apart". We are not individuals doing our own separate thing. We are a people for God and for each other.
Prayer and the service of the Word of God became my identity as a priest and when I explained this to the people, they understood and accepted and even came to value the power of prayer and the Word in their lives. I was also helped to arrive at this identity by retired Pallottine Bishop Patrick Winters who said to me as I was moving to Galapo - "all the buildings and projects are there. You just go and preach the Gospel." That meant an awful lot coming from him.
Prayer and preaching don't always have visible results; it's a life lived in faith, trusting that God will make something of our efforts. But there were visible results too. Shortly before I left Tanzania on one Sunday I baptized 200 young people and adults. The following week, when the bishop arrived for Confirmations, he was very dismissive of the Pallottines saying that we were no good at pastoral work. I told him there were 800 people for confirmation, and I have to confess I enjoyed the shock on his face!
We reach moments of crisis in our personal lives, family life and church life. Such moments demand that we assess and discern how we are to move forward into the future. We decide who and what we are to become.
As Christians this assessment and discernment has to have Jesus at its centre and reference point. Set yourselves close to Him, St. Peter says. It is He who determines the shape of things to come and we are not left to our own devices in moving forward into uncertain futures. "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God still and trust in me..." (John 14:1ff)
Society and many Irish Catholics now treat Jesus as if He were simply one of many options and we water down His importance, the importance of His Gospel. How many in our time have turned to fortune tellers - which cannot exist side by side with faith. For Jesus Himself there is great clarity, no ambiguity. He says of himself "I am the way, the truth and the life".
He is not one way, one truth, one life among many others. He is THE way, THE truth and THE life and we who profess to follow Him are called to hold fast to Him - to follow the WAY, to live by the TRUTH and to experience the LIFE that is only to be found in Jesus.
We experience this communal truth in many ways and in ways that are intimately personal. For me He has become "my Lord, my Life and my Love."