Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Epiphany 6 B - Feb 12, 2012

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Mr. Peter Daino, a missionary in Malawi on a sabbatical visit to HCM
Epiphany 6 B – Sunday, February 12, 2012

2 Kings 5:1-14
1 Corinthians 9:24-27
Mark 1:40-45

Stand by me

Hello, my name is Peter Daino. I have lived and worked in Africa for 33 years.  Twenty five of those thirty three years I was a Religious Brother with the Society of Mary.  In the first two years of my African life, 1975-1977, I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, and in these last six years, 2006-2012, I have been a Lay Catholic Missionary, working for the Rosarian Sisters.  As Deputy Director of Lusubilo, I have been working with the Sisters to deliver food and farm supplies to 9,500 orphans and vulnerable children in 73 villages in Karonga, northern Malawi.  Lusubilo (Hope) believes the best way to help orphans is through the extended family, that is, by supporting the guardians of the orphans.  The grandmothers and the grandfathers are the real heroes of the orphan crisis in Africa.

That's enough about me.

Elisha heals a leper from afar.  Never goes out of his hut, just gives a command, through a messenger.  He didn't ask Naaman, but I think he expected Naaman to spread the word, "There is a prophet in Israel."

Jesus heals a leper from close up.  He engages him, talks with him.  Jesus stretches out his hand and touches him.  Jesus is moved with pity.  And also, opposite the Elisha's mentality, Jesus says to the cured leper, "See that you say nothing to anyone."

But there is more to this story.  Look how Mark ends the episode; "Jesus could no longer go into a town openly, but stayed out in the country."  The country is where the lepers stayed, they were not allowed to go into town openly.

What's happened?  The ostracized leper who had to live in the Wilds, at the margin of society is now standing in the holiest, cleanest place, The Temple, among the righteous, and Jesus has taken his place in the Wilds, at the margin of society.  Jesus is now outcast and stigmatized.  He could not go around openly.

To my understanding the difference between Elisha and Jesus can be summed up with one word -- Solidarity!  And that's what I want to talk about today.

Much of what I know about solidarity, I learned from the wildebeest.  It is an odd looking animal.  A wildebeest looks as if someone was tyring to paste half a deer on to half a cow.  And they're not very strong.

One day I was in the Serengeti, sitting high up on a rock watching a herd of about one hundred wildebeests.  They were grazing peacefully.  Suddenly, a lion appeared about fifty yards away.  Sighting the lion, the wildebeests instantly closed rank, stood side by side, shoulder to shoulder.  Without twitching a muscle they eyeballed the lion with 200 wildebeest eyeballs.  The lion got uncomfortable and moved behind them maybe for an easier strike.  But then the whole line of wildebeests turned around and was facing the lion again.  Standing shoulder to shoulder, side by side, they just kept looking at the lion.  After several more minutes, the lion gave up and slouched away in defeat.  Those funny wildebeests had stared down the lion.

Why didn't they run?  I think the wildebeests knew that if they each ran off in their own direction it would be the slowest moving wildebeest who would have been the meal that day for the lion.  It would have been the baby wildebeest or the pregnant wildebeest or the older wildebeest.  That's why the wildebeests stayed together.

 Wildebeests in the Serengeti - picture by Bruce Macaskill

Community, an elder in Kenya told me, works the same way.  If trouble comes, like Hunger, like AIDS, and we scatter, run off each in our own direction, the ones to suffer will be the children, the pregnant women, the elderly.  That's why those who are a little stronger must stand by those who are more vulnerable.  We have to stay together.

Mary stood by Jesus as he hung on the cross.  This for me is the most striking image of Mary.  I even wrote a book about it, "Stabat Mater," Standing Mother.  Allow me to share a couple paragraphs.

Mary bravely stands there as Jesus hangs in torment.  She stands beside Jesus as others have stood beside those unjustly persecuted.  She is visible in others who have taken a stand for the oppressed, others such as Oscar Romero, Steve Biko, Harvey Milk.  Like Mary these witnesses of conscience have stood beside the powerless: there, with her, they have stood against systems of injustice, against "the principalities and powers."

At the foot of the cross, Mary was standing up against all that brings down the poor.  She stood on Calvary's hill as a witness, a lone witness.  She stood in protest.  That is how she shared the exaltation of her son in his hour.  She did not cower, she did not run, she did not excuse, she did not compromise with injustice.  She POINTED at injustice by standing at the foot of the cross.
Aristotle said that to stop an army in retreat you just need one soldier to stop running, turn around, stick his spear in the ground, and take a stand.  And soon there will be a soldier standing to his right and another to his left.  And to the side of each of these, more soldiers will appear until the whole army has turned around and is facing the enemy again.  It just takes one soldier who decides to stop running, who won't be moved.

I am a Roman Catholic.  In the last twenty years I have seen fewer and fewer of my types -- Vatican Two Idealists -- willing to turn around and put our spears in the ground.  There is now little resistance left, liberals are running helter skelter to get out of the way of the Roman juggernaut rolling toward them.  Who knows how it will all end.  Many people just give up and leave.  But there are some I know -- Joan Chittester, Jeannine Gramick, Thomas Gumbleton -- who have decided to take a stand and stay, and by their prickly presence they practise the ministry of making people feel uncomfortable.

This is solidarity like the Jesus solidarity of today's gospel.  You take the leper's place, you take a few hits on your reputation.

When I wanted to leave the Society of Mary in 2007 I was told that I had to write a letter to the pope to request dispensation from my vows.  I thought, Okay! here is a chance to stick my spear in the ground.  This is what I wrote.

Your Holiness, throughout the eighties and nineties it became more clear to me that the Roman Catholic Church was losing the spirit of the Second Vatican Council.  I wrote to my bishop and superiors letters about my seven anguishes:
1. Why are there no women priests in the Roman Catholic Church?
2. Why are there no married priests in the Roman Rite?
3. Why is there no blessing for gay people who want to be committed to each other?
4. Why do we have so little inclusive language in our liturgies?
5. Why don't we welcome Protestants who want to receive Communion?
6. Why don't we welcome remarried Catholics who want to receive Communion?
7. And Why can't we encourage the use of condoms to prevent the spread of AIDS when millions of people are dying of this disease?  In little Malawi there are over one million orphans!

It seemed the church went backward in the eighties and nineties; and seems even more backward, Your Holiness, these last few years during your own pontificate.

I had been getting more and more discouraged.  Then in 2006 something wonderful happened.  I spent three months at an Episcopalian Benedictine monastery near Poughkeepsie, New York.  There I experienced the Second Vatican Council.  The spirit of hope and renewal was alive.  At that Episcopalian monastery, I experienced the fullness of Catholicism.  And I began to see what the Roman Catholic Church could be.
Your Holiness, I remain a Catholic, a catholic Catholic because my hope for the church has been renewed.
But...  just before I was going to post this letter, a former priest told me that the way to get a fast dispensation and to get it for sure was to blame yourself for everything, and not to question the set-up, or imply the institution might have it wrong.

Well...  I unstuck my spear and skedaddled.  I never sent my Truth Speaking to Power letter but this instead.

Your Holiness, I thought of listing here the great hopes I had regarding the Second Vatican Council, but I don't see the point in doing this.  I do not want to dwell on the liberals' disappointments with the Church.  These are already well known to you and I am sure you get many letters from disappointed liberals.  I want instead to dwell on my disappointments with myself.
The letter went on in that vein.  I was dispensed in 4 months; Record Time!

As years pass, I begin to recognize that it was not a fast dispensation that made me ditch my original letter to the pope.  No.  I know the real reason.  I was afraid to identify myself with any of those I mentioned in my brave paragraphs.  I get an F in solidarity.  My knees failed me.  I didn't take a stand.

And I am not usually a coward.  I have had a run in with a crocodile.  I have held down snakes with rakes.  I've been shot at.  I was in a plane crash...  but I did not have the courage to take the place of the leper or those seen as lepers by some big people in my church.

Solidarity!  Who in your life may be calling out, "Stand by me!"  Who do you know, outside the City Wall, ostracized, crucified, and calling out to you, "sister, stand by me; brother, stand by me." 

 Mary Magdalene, Mary and John at the foot of the cross
from The Passion, a BBC 2008 television series

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