Category Archives: Africa

Truth is freeing

“If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples,
and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8: 31-32

Madeleine L’Engle once wrote: “Truth is eternal. Our knowledge of it is changeable. It is disastrous when you confuse the two.”

In our search for God, it is easy to confuse our notions of God with the God who is beyond all words – but who keeps giving us glimpses of the Truth who God is.

Remaining in God’s word, for me, means opening my heart to God and all God’s people so that I can hear God’s call wherever it may lead me.

And so, I continually ask myself, am I a disciple who listens with an open heart or do I think that I know it all?

This is a source of humility and great hope for all of us who seek God.

God of Truth, you show us small signs of the truth which you are, but you are greater than our minds and our hearts.  Keep us open to all these signs and keep us always free of the temptation to think that we have all the truth.

Adapted from my contribution to the Lenten Booklet of the Associates of the Dubuque Franciscan Sisters.

A Sudanese saint and human trafficking

I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labor. Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.
Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, ¶ 211

Today the Church celebrates a Sudanese sister who had been for many years a slave, a victim of human trafficking. Saint Josephina Bakhita transformed her suffering into service of others as a Canossian sister in northern Italy.

Born in the Darfur region of Sudan, she was kidnapped into slavery when she was about seven years old. Sold several times – and seriously maltreated at least twice – she was eventually sold to an Italian consul who took her back with his family to Venice, Italy. There the consul gave Bakhita to a friend who entrusted her with care of their daughter.

To make a long story short, the daughter and Bakhita were sent to the Canossian sisters. There Bakhita learned about the Catholic faith. Her “owners” wanted to take her back to Sudan where they had a hotel but she refused. The owners insisted but the Canossian sisters and the Patriarch of Venice took the side of Bakhita who was baptized and given the name Josephine. To the owners’ surprise, Josephine was freed, since slavery was prohibited in Italy.

She joined the Canossian sisters and spent more than fifty years in simple tasks in several convents, supporting her sisters with her work and her prayers.

This morning as I prayed over the life of St. Josephine, I recalled several people from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, where I worked for many years.

I recall the families, especially Paula and Jim, who took in some of the Lost Boys of Sudan and made them a part of their lives.

I remember the large number of Sudanese Catholics who were a part of the St. Thomas parish.

I also remember a precocious high school student in religious ed, Luis, who has become a major advocate in the fight against human trafficking, even within the US State Department.

I remember the commitment of these people, as well as the suffering of the Sudanese people – even now – and the continuing scourge of human trafficking and poorly paid workers.

These people inspire me to continue the small ways I feel called to help people recall and recover their dignity, as children of God.


Words from a martyr

In the midst of the wars in the Middle East and the wanton killing of civilians, I offer these quotes from Bishop Pierre Lucien Claverie, French bishop of Oran, Algeria, a proponent of active solidarity and dialogue with Islam, who was killed on August 1, 1996.

“There is no life without love. There is no love without letting go every possession and giving oneself.”

“That is probably what is at the basis of my religious vocation. I wondered why, throughout my Christian childhood when I listened to sermons on loving one’s neighbor, I had never heard anyone say the Arabs were my neighbors.”

“It is my conviction that humanity can only exist in the plural. As soon as we claim to possess the truth or speak in the name of humanity we fall into totalitarianism and exclusion. No one possesses the truth; everyone seeks it.”

“So that love vanquishes hate, one must love to the point of giving one’s life in the daily combat from which Jesus himself did not escape unscathed.”


Another martyred archbishop

Ten years ago today, the papal nuncio to Burundi, Michael Courtney, was ambushed and shot 25 times in southern Burundi

The government blamed rebels, but further investigations suggest that he was targeted by high-ranking members of the government, because he had evidence of government misuse of international funds. See the Catholic News Service report here.

Irish-born Archbishop Courtney was trying to broker peace in the troubled nation, where tribal conflicts had resulted in massacres (as in neighboring Ruanda) and a civil war. He was seeking to help the people of Burundi find a sense of being brothers and sisters, instead of identifying themselves by ethnic background.

I don’t know much more about his life or his witness. But he was committed enough to risk his own life.

Trying to seek peace and justice is not sitting back, talking about reconciliation. It is a hard process, demanding sacrifice – of oneself.

That sacrifice begins when we start treating others, even our enemies and opponents, with respect and love – speaking the truth, but seeking to find what is common to all of us: our identity as children of one God.

The challenge of Nelson Mandela

Today, at the age of 95, Nelson Mandela has passed to the Lord. May he rest in God’s peace.

When Mandela was released from prison he held no rancor or bitterness toward his jailors, February 11, 1990. On May 9, 1994, he took office as President of South Africa.

Two days after his release from prison he told his supporters:

“It is not the kings and generals that make history…. I have seen with my own eyes the masses of our people, the workers, the peasants, the doctors, the lawyers, the clergy, all our people. I have seen them making history and that is why all of us are here today.”

It is easy to make Nelson Mandela a hero in such a way that we dismiss our responsibility to struggle for justice.

It similar to Dorothy Day’s quip to not call her a saint since it makes it seem so impossible for us mere mortals.

Looking at our heroes should inspire us to stand up for justice, for the poor and the oppressed.

Looking at the saints should inspire us to seek to live each day as God’s daughters and sons.

We will almost certainly not make changes by grand scheming and tremendous deeds. But the persistent every-day acts of love and struggles for justice will help bring about a little of that Reign of justice, love, and peace which Nelson Mandela, Dorothy Day, and so many others sought.

The little deeds, done with an enlarged vision, are what the world needs from all of us.

Let us begin.

Loving our neighbor

In the 1990s Algeria was torn apart by the violence. Among the victims were Trappist monks, other men and women religious, and a bishop, Monseigneur Pierre Lucien Claverie, Bishop of Oran, who was killed on this day in 1996. He was the last Catholic leader killed in Algeria.

He was born in Algeria of French parents. He was very sympathetic to the cause of Algerian independence in the 1950s.

After studying and being ordained a Dominican priest in France, he decided to return to Algeria in 1967.

He directed a center for Arabic and Islamic studies which attracted Muslims and ot only Christians.

For Bishop Claverie, his love embraced all.

As he wrote shortly before his death:

“There is no life without love. There is no love without letting go every possession and giving oneself.
“That is probably what is at the basis of my religious vocation.
“I wondered why, throughout my Christian childhood when I listened to sermons on loving one’s neighbor, I had never heard anyone say the Arabs were my neighbors.
“It is my conviction that humanity can only exist in the plural. As soon as we claim to possess the truth or speak in the name of humanity we fall into totalitarianism and exclusion. No one possesses the truth; everyone seeks it.”

Today, we need to be reminded that all people are our neighbors and we are called to love them all – not with pious intentions, but with a love that seeks their good and the good of all peoples.

Today, love your neighbor – and, if you really want to be a follower of Christ, love your enemy.


The witness and prayer of Charles de Foucauld

Charles de Foucauld had a vision of religious life in community that he never saw realized during his life. He even wrote rules of life for this community. He died, killed by extremists, in Tamanrasset, Algeria, on December 1, 1916, without seeing his dream realized.


The Cross of Frere Charles de Foucauld

Less than seventeen years René Voillaume and four others joined together and became the Little Brothers of Jesus, a small community which lives among the poor, working with them, living the hidden life of Jesus at Nazareth in the world of the people on the margins. Later, the Little Sisters of Jesus, a women’s community was founded by Magdeleine de Jesus. Other communities, including the Little Brothers of the Gospel, arose and men and women, lay and religious, seek to follow the inspiration of Blessed Charles de Foucauld.

Charles de Foucauld grew up a playboy. But moved by the example of North African Muslims, he experienced a conversion that led him first to one of the poorest Trappist monasteries. This was too comfortable for him as he saw the poverty around him and so he went a lived in the Holy Land, for part of the time as a handyman for the Poor Clares. Later, after being ordained, he left to live in Algeria.

He sought to live as a poor workman, preaching by his life as Jesus did in Nazareth, serving the Lord among the poor.

His life has been an inspiration to me and his prayer of abandonment is a continuing challenge:

Father, I put myself in your hands;
Father, I abandon myself to you.
I entrust myself to you.
Father, do with me as it pleases you.
Whatever you do with me,
I will thank you for it.
Giving thanks for anything,
I am ready for anything.
As long as your will, O God, is done in me,
as long as your will is done
in all your creatures,
I ask for nothing else, O God.
I put my soul into your hands.
I give it to you, O God,
with all the love of my heart,
because I love you,
and because my love requires me
to give myself,
I put myself unreservedly in your hands
with infinite confidence,
because you are my Father.

I don’t know if I have the courage and the faith to pray this prayer – but it sustains me as I seek to find how God can use me.

The Church, the Poor, and Carlo Carretto

Carlo Carretto, Little Brother of the Gospel, follower of Charles de Foucauld, died on October 3, 1988.

I read his Letters from the Desert soon after it was first published in 1972. I bought copies and handed it out to friends. In this book, Little Brother Carlo wrote of his desert retreat as he began his life as a Little Brother after being a leader of Catholic Action in Italy. He felt called to the desert spirituality of Charles de Foucauld who lived among the poorest of the poor in Algeria.

His writings have continued to nourish me, especially his first person account of St. Francis of Assisi, I, Francis.  It is probably not a coincidence that he died on the very same day as St. Francis did in 1226.

In his last years he wrote a number of books that challenged the church, but he was quick to say, “No, I shall not leave this Church, founded on so frail a rock, because I should be founding another one on an even frailer rock: myself.”

But he sought a church that was poor, that accompanied the poor. He was especially disturbed by those who dream of a triumphant church in this world. (I wonder what he would say about the church today.)

The true Church is the Church of the defeated, of the weak, of the poor, of those on the fringe of society.

It is a pity that the great gatherings of Christians too often take place in St. Peter’s Square, where Bernini, son of a pagan period sick with triumphalism, designed everything as a triumph.

We must beware!…

In that square there is no sign of the Church’s agony, of human agony … and everything may go wrong if I forget the reality, even when everything seems on the surface to be fine.

Rallies of Christians are more suitable in hospitals, in prisons, in shanty towns, in mental homes, where people cry, where people suffer, where the devastation of sin is being physically endured, sin in the form of the arrogance of the rich and the powerful.

Jesus’ face is there and reveals itself there because it is there that “the lost” are to be sought and saved (Luke 19:10)

Let’s go there with Carlo – and see Christ.

Stephen Biko – prophet

Thirty five years ago, on September 12, 1977, Stephen Biko, leader of the Black Consciousness movement in South Africa, died in detention.

He had been beaten and suffered from inadequate – almost non-existent – medical attention. After being taken, naked and in chains, on a 705 mile ride in a Land Rover to a prison hospital (instead of going to the local hospital), he died, a victim of the apartheid system.

Last year I wrote here on his concern that the table of life in South Africa be set by the people, not the outsiders, an insight that has affected me since I read it about thirty years ago.

But today I’d like to share a quote on Black Consciousness that Robert Ellsberg uses in  All Saints.

The sense of defeat is what we are fighting against. People must not just give in to the hardship of life. People must develop a hope. People must develop some form of security to be together to look a their problems, and people must, in this way, buildup their humanity.

This is what Biko and others tried to do in the Black Consciousness movement. And this is what I hope happens among the people I serve, perhaps in a small way through my ministry.

The world and the political and economic power structures here in Honduras (and in many other places) treat the poor as if they are worthless and nothing which often reinforces (and, at times, causes) low self-esteem.

What a difference from what Jesus says in today’s Gospel (Luke 6:20):

Fortunate are you who are poor, for yours is the Reign of God.

Would that we remembered the poor – not as victims – but as God’s chosen people who have a mission and a dignity that so many would deny.





No smell and a strong stomach

According to today’s entry in Butler’s Lives of the Saints: Concise Edition,  St. Peter Claver once said, “If being a saint consists in having no taste and a strong stomach, I admit I may be one.”

This Spanish Jesuit, a patron of missionaries, knew what it means to face horrid sights and smells. He spent about forty years in Cartagena, ministering to the African slaves who were brought into port.

With some translators, he met the ships coming into port and brought the Africans medicine, food, lemons, brandy, and tobacco! (What a combination.) He also went down into the fetid holds where those who were sick and dying were chained. There his senses were most surely assaulted by the smells of death and dying.

Though he was not an active advocate of the end of slavery he was a threat to the slave-owners because of his treatment of the slaves. He treated them as human beings, preached the Gospel to them, and even made annual visits to some of the nearby slave plantations (where he made sure that slaves were allowed to marry and stay with their families). He is said to have baptized 30,000 during his years of ministry.

St. Pedro Claver was not one of those whom St. James confronts in today’s second lectionary reading (James 2: 1-5). He did not make distinction among persons and focus his attention on the well-dressed. His focus was the poor slave, dressed in rags, whom so many despised.

Pedro Claver knew and lived what James wrote:

 Did not God choose the poor of this world to receive the riches of faith and to inherit the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him? (James 2: 5)

And so today I ask Pedro Claver to intercede with God to give me more courage to respond in love to the most unattractive of the poor, to the fetid smells of poverty, to the challenges of dirt and insects.

I don’t know how Pedro Claver responded to the smells and the poverty. If his experience was anything like mine, my guess is that he experienced a great joy to be among the chosen ones of God, to whom the Kingdom of God belongs (Luke 6: 20).

Yes there are hard days, but in the depth of my heart I experience a great joy as do many who serve with the poor.

Thanks be to God. who has given me an open heart, even though I still have a strong sense of smell and a weak stomach.