Homily for the Feast of Saint Ignatius, Riverview, July 31, 2012
David Braithwaite SJ
Juan Polanco, Saint Ignatius’ Jesuit secretary for his final years before he died in Rome, notes in his diaries that he found Ignatius, on more than one evening, atop the building in which they lived, staring up at the night stars with tears streaming down his worn, old Basque face. Ignatius was a tough man, exacting, demanding, yet also at turns gentle, gracious, polite and always discerning. To his contemporaries he was a picture of self-control. After he died, in his breviary, which is the collection of prayers still recited by a priest every day, they found the inscription written in his own hand ‘vince te ipsum’ ‘conquer thyself’. This made the sight before Polanco on that roman rooftop all the more intriguing and moving to him - and indeed to us centuries later; a man overcome with emotion as he gazes on God’s creation, as his mind wanders over the joys and the sufferings of the groaning world.
The saint was praying for the world because he was overwhelmed with the presence of God in it – in all things - overwhelmed to the point of tears. Where his tears were so also was his heart – the heart of a saint – a heart for all, but most especially for the poor, the weak, the broken.
It was to the whole world that he gave his life in service because it was a world loved by Christ – his tears were for Christ’s world for it was in Christ that he found his true heart. And so it is for us – where out tears are so also will be our heart. For whom shall you shed your tears?
I have just returned two days ago from a trip to Vietnam and Thailand. I was visiting the volunteers who finished school last year at Saint Aloysius’ College - your brother school by the harbour – there are ten of them from last year’s year 12 who are volunteering overseas, working with Jesuits for the poor, as we speak, in Thailand, Vietnam and Nepal. I hasten to add that two Riverview boys from the Class of 2010 went for six months last year to work in Vietnam too– Dom Brooks and Tom Godlewski. I might also add that there are still two spots for any Year 12s here who would like to work for a year in Thailand next year. The Aloysius volunteers and I gathered in Vietnam to reflect.
However, just days before I arrived, thugs armed with bats and chains crashed through the doors of a church in the north west near the mountains of Central Vietnam and attacked a congregation of Catholics praying during the Mass. Many, mainly elderly, were hospitalised. It was later reported that each of the young thugs had been paid $25 equivalent by the local police to carry out the unprovoked and cowardly attack on God’s faithful.
The Catholics across the diocese responded with a peaceful prayer protest drawing many scores of thousands out. The local authorities responded by placing tanks in front of the Bishop’s house and cordoning off the roads to the churches. Vans with loudspeakers drove the streets proclaiming their communist gospel of hate.
We were unable to return to the villages at which the Aloysius old boys had been working for fear that their hosts would suffer retribution. So we sat in a small hotel room waiting for their belongings to be dropped off in the middle of the night. As we waited I said Mass for the old boys. We prayed especially for the people they had loved and served in the villages. Some fought back tears for that was where they had placed their hearts. I’ve since placed the old boys in Thailand.
It is worth considering most seriously how you might respond if - backed by the power of a gun – a uniformed official told you that you were not allowed to go to Mass; that your Priest cannot offer the Holy Mass. I suggest to you that if you were ever confronted with such a calamity you might discover the value of that which was being taken from you. You might then find the courage to rally to defend that Church; you might place a Vatican flag out the front of your house as they do in parts of Vietnam; you might sit in front of the Jesuits offices’ to block the police from taking them away for questioning, and dare I say it, more of you might surely then enter the priesthood to help defend that Church, or at least consider doing so. You would be forced to decide not only in what you believe, but more to the point, what price you are willing to pay for that belief.
So what does this terrible enemy of the State known as the Catholic Church actually do that is so terrible? I’d like to share just one story. There’s an orphanage that I visit every time I go to Vietnam; it’s run by some nuns who, I believe are very close to God. They care night and day for little children living with all sorts of physical and mental disabilities. I’ll be going there again in January with some of the Year 12s here who’ve signed up for a Riverview Old Boys’ immersion.
There’s a girl there– she’s now about 15 – who arrived some four years ago in a state of complete shock and distress. She was brought to the sisters by an old man who lives in the mountains. He found this little mentally disabled girl in a cage high up one of those mountains. She was being used as bait with which to catch tigers. Tiger parts fetch a very high price on the black market and it is believed that the scent of human flesh is most attractive to tigers. Of course, she was considered as being of no value. A little girl with disability left to cower in the jungle darkness. Where she was taken from originally they don't know.
When the old man rescued her she could sit neither with human nor animal without screaming. The nuns took her in and have cared for her with such Christ-like love that she has slowly recovered a little - she can now sit with other children. But she does not speak - not because she can't but because she still lives in the deathly embrace of a kind of primordial fear - the kind of fear that I imagine only a small child face to face with a snarling tiger could experience.
This is the church they persecute in Vietnam with guns and we persecute in Australia with indifference - the one Church that loves and cares for the forgotten, the broken and the unwanted; the church that insists on the infinite dignity of all human life. This is the church to which you and I belong. It is the church that runs, in almost every part of the globe, HIV clinics, homeless shelters, hospitals and schools like this one. When you are indifferent to this Church you are indifferent to these things too - when you refuse to love and commit to this Church - you effectively refuse to love and commit to those good works of God that only happen by virtue of Christ's Church.
For whom shall you shed your tears? Will it be just for the small word of your friends and family? Or could you cry like Ignatius for the whole world - for the creation loved into being by its creator and saved and redeemed by his only begotten son? Or will the stars just blink back at you in cold indifference reflecting your own random heart?
Whom will you love so much that you would give your life? For whom would you risk your life? For Ignatius it was Jesus Christ. That was in whom he found his heart and to whom he gave his life and for whom many Jesuits have lost their lives. How large can your heart be? Dare you find out? For whom shall you shed your tears? For where your tears fall so will your heart be also.