Saturday, January 22, 2011

Loring (Reflections on the Gospel of the 3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Mt. 4:12-23)

"'Come after me and I will make you fishers of men'. At once they left their nets and followed him".

Loring was a simple woman, a retired grade school teacher in her late 60’s when I was introduced to her many years ago. She wasn’t wealthy or popular, and there was really nothing remarkable about her, except she used to come and visit us at the seminary, always with some poor person in tow who needed assistance. Being unable to aid them herself (given her own poverty), Loring would approach any of the resident priests on staff who was willing to find a wealthy friend or acquaintance who could lend a helping hand. She called it “networking”, introducing the poor and needy to wealthy and generous persons willing to assist.

It was quite effective. One time she visited me in the seminary in Manila with a young woman named Marina, who had no money and no medical insurance, but needed three heart valves replaced. The doctors had told her that without the operation, she wouldn’t last two months. Not knowing what to do, and being unable myself to provide everything she needed, I called up friends both in Manila and in the States and told them the situation. One of my buddies from the seminary in Louvain who at that time was already a priest in the Midwest, started calling friends, acquaintances, and just about anyone he knew who might be willing to help. Within a couple of days, we managed to raise the amount needed to save the young woman’s life.

The day of her operation, I visited Marina at the hospital. Loring was there by her side. Both were more than grateful, and with tears in their eyes, expressed how overwhelmed they were at the generosity of so many persons whom they will surely never meet. Before I left, we said a prayer, not only for Marina’s safety and health, but also for all those persons who without even knowing this woman on the other side of the globe, opened their hearts and assisted in extending her life. Loring’s simple act of “networking” people didn’t only save a young woman’s life, it became the means by which people who would never even know each other in this life, were brought together in order to aid someone in need.

The last time I saw Marina was a couple of months after her operation. She was the picture of health. Loring, I haven’t really heard from in quite a while; though I’m certain that if she’s still around, she's probably going from one place to the next, accompanying some poor person, looking for generous individuals willing to help a brother or a sister in need.

I owe Loring a great deal, not only as a person and as a Christian, but as a priest. She taught me how a simple and yet determined individual can make a difference in the world, and in the lives of others. And she taught me what it means to love the poor, concretely--in a way that actually does something to and for them, and not in a mere sentimental or detached fashion. To this day, whenever I am reminded of the amazing experience I had with her and Marina, I could not help but wonder how many lives this poor and simple woman managed to save. No one, except God perhaps, will ever really know.

There are persons who are like that. Simply knowing them changes us, influences us to be better. For some reason, their goodness rubs off on us and we become better persons because of them. They are the types of persons of whom we can say: “I believe I was made a better person because I had come to know him or her”.

That in fact is the simple message and challenge of the Gospel.
“Come after me, and I shall make you fishers of men”, Jesus says to Peter and Andrew, James, and John. The call of the first disciples was to be persons who would be witnesses to his message. They were, like Loring, simple folk. They weren’t wealthy, well-educated, powerful or influential people. They were ordinary fishermen. And yet, Jesus changed the world through them. That’s because they responded to Jesus’ call to be “fishers of men”, bearers of the Good News that God has finally come to dwell among his people and walk with them.

There really is no need to be great, or powerful, wealthy or popular in order to change the world. We can be our ordinary, simple selves and yet bear witness to the fact that we are followers of Christ. An old Christian philosopher said that the only thing we need to ask ourselves is:
“Do the people I meet, work or live with, find themselves inspired to do good and be good?” If our answer is “yes”, then that’s all there is to bearing witness to Christ.

“Let your light shine before people so that seeing your works they may give glory to your heavenly Father”, Jesus tells us in another part of the gospel. He invites us to live our lives in such a way that we get to draw the best out of people; so that people become better individuals by their relationship with us; so that the world becomes a better place simply because we were around. Today, he invites each one of us as he invited his first disciple two thousand years ago. He asks us to be his witnesses to all those we meet. He asks us to follow him, and become ourselves: “fishers of men”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)