"Including People from the Margins"

Dear Friends, it is indeed a great honor for me to speak with you at this great Church event - the 50th; International Eucharistic Congress. I am delighted and proud that Ireland for the second time in its history is host to such an important event; as you all know the first time Ireland hosted an International Eucharistic Congress was in 1932 – just 80 years ago, the year my late parents got married! I thank the organizers for the invitation to speak during this important event for Ireland, the local church and the universal church.

 It is also a great honour for me to share the platform or stage with Gerry Brown and Team from Sunflower Farm and Garden, Roscommon.  You might say as a lead into what Gerry and friends will share with you, which I know you will find interesting and inspring,  I have been asked to speak on the subject or theme Including People from the Margins. To be honest with you this has given me some unease because it challenges me personally …and I am sure it challenges you too. The question it poses for we is:  am I truly inclusive in my dealings with ALL of my fellow travelers on the road of live or am I selective? Having said that, it is a great privilege to be asked to address the topic – because it is one that is very close to my heart.

 Reality versus what is written down

All of the major religions have particular concern for people who are sick, or have disability or special needs be it Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Confucianism and of course Christianity. Likewise to guarantee that all citizens have equal rights there is The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The International Bill of Human Rights and The Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union to which Ireland is a signatory and other documents and writings on the subject of disability that promotes human and civil rights of all citizens. The most blatant form of exclusion and the highest cause of death in the world is poverty, to combat poverty the United Nations came up with the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These are eight international development goals that all 193 United Nations member States and at least 23 international organizations have agreed to achieve by the year 2015. They include eradicating extreme poverty, reducing child mortality rates, fighting disease, epidemics such as AIDS, and developing a global partnership for development.[1]  

We also have our holy books which favor the poor and the excluded - be it the Bible - especially the new Testament, the Koran,

The Veda (of Hinduism), The Torah of Judaism. All beautiful inspiring texts, statements and aspirations. After 2000 years of Christianity why do we still need to have a workshop of this nature?  Why do we need legislation - sometimes even having to levy penalties to make us do what should come naturally  as human beings? The reason is that there is still discrimination, isolation, exclusion and stigmatization on the grounds of color, disability, religion, nationality and the list goes on.

As you can imagine having read through some of the material in preparation for this talk, it left me sad. It left me sad for the simple reason that the content of all the documents is very good, compelling stuff, in fact excellent, but the reality on the ground, so to speak, is so different. Unfortunately, for many people ‘dis-ability’ implies a lack of something on the part of the person who presents with a disability, compared to or judged by the standard of the so called ‘complete’ person, which of course really doesn’t exist because we are all incomplete, we are all disfigured by sin and in need of healing and transformation. On the other hand in medieval society - in general - people with a disability or as they say in India, people ‘differently abled’ were seen to possess special gifts which were indicative of their privileged status as recipients of God's grace. 

We are on a journey

While reflecting on the disparity between what is said and what is put into practice I was reminded of a song by Charlie Landsborough, A million ways to fall, where he describes the human condition - …there are no angels after all, only people, only people and a million ways to fall….

It is true we are not angels, we are human beings and as such we are fragile and limited. We all know this from personal experience – personal illness or a member of our family born with or developing an illness or disability of one kind or another.  We are people, brothers and sisters on a pilgrimage, a journey through life. Because of human frailty all of us at some time or another need the help of another human being. There is one thing for sure we are interdependent, we need each other.  To have that sense of belonging of being loved and supported, especially in time of difficulty, is a basic human need. Mother Teresa said in one of her last interviews that she gave; that the greatest disease in the world was not AIDS but a feeling of being unwanted. The greatest suffering of all is that of isolation, of being excluded, rejected and unloved.  To have no one to mention ones name in love is the greatest suffering of all.

The evil of poverty and how it dehumanizes and destroys, yet in its midst one can discover beauty,  was brought home to me when I visited Mexico about 15 years ago – but the experience has stayed with me. I was visiting our communities in Mexico City and Sunday afternoon the Brothers took me for a walkabout in that huge city, so full of history and teaming with people – a population of more that 20 million. After visiting some museums and churches we came to stop in a rather large piazza and it was agreed that we would have afternoon tea. We sat there sipping tea or whatever and chatting away. I don’t speak Spanish but understand it reasonably well; as happens in situations like this, while the Brothers made an effort to include me in their conversation, gradually I was left out altogether. This didn’t bother me as I was entertained watching the activity taking place all around us. There were groups of mariachi/musicians going from table to table with their guitars, sombreros and ponchos serenading anyone willing to contribute a few pesos for the pleasure.   There were also venders with a whole variety of knickknacks, children begging and so on.

One littler girl aged about 7-8 years, came to our table selling little packets of sweets. The little girl didn’t have much success as each Brother in turn indicated by a gesture of the hand that they were not interested in purchasing the sweets. So she approached the gringo – the American - in the eyes of the Mexican. Not having much else to do, I turned to the little girl and said to her in my best Spanish NO GRAZIAS, YO NON TENGO PASOS! For those of you who understand Spanish, my apologies and for those of you don’t’, it means…it translates …. I am sorry; I don’t have any pesos, in other words I have no money, which happened to be true on that occasion.  

The little girl went off some time latter a child’s hand appeared on the table before me leaving on it a small packet of sweets. I looked around to see the little girl run off and as she did she gave me a wave of her hand.  I was deeply moved by the pure goodness and simplicity of this little girl. I was also angry at what poverty does to people; it deprived this little girl and her family of living with dignity and independents. I have kept the sweets on my computer and when I see them I think of the little Mexican girl who must be 23 or 24 years now, and I say a wee pray for her.   “The marvelous thing about learning from a story is that the story never ends, so our learning from it need not end either.”[2] I can say that I have learnt much from meeting this little girl and continue to learn every time I think of her and all the memories and expedience that surrounded that casual encounter.  

We are all members of the one human family; each one is personally created by God, made into his own image and likeness and loved by Him passionately. This is what gives the individual an innate dignity that neither poverty, illness, disability or any other human condition can in any way destroy or diminish. This being the case it is strange and sad that we form opinions and make judgments about others without actually knowing them. We make negative judgments and comments about people based on hearsay, rumors, their country of origin, the color of their skin, the prayer house they go to or how they present themselves.   I live in Rome - a wonderful place to live. If you were to walk down the centre of town and enter the side streets paved with cobblestones you would see very old buildings that look dilapidated, one would be forgiven for thinking that they all should be pulled down, bulldozed! But should one enter inside the buildings you would discover splendid stairways, marble floors, beautiful furnishings and frequently valuable works of art – for sure a desirable place to live!

 The heart a sanctuary reserved to God alone

 It is even more deceptive to judge a human being from what you see on the outside. Were we to see the true nature, the inner beauty of the human being we would fall down and worship him/her.   John of God received such an insight i.e. the true nature, the beauty and value of every human being, this is what motivated John in his ministry. He said that one human being is of more value than the entire wealth or all the treasures of the world put together. 

 But John of God himself experienced marginalization, stigmatization rejection and discrimination. He suffered humiliation and the pain of separation and isolation from the community because he was perceived to have a mental illness or nervous breakdown. In response to this negative attitude by society towards him instead of fleeing in a state of righteous anger John decided to do something about it … so he established a House of Hospitality to welcome people like himself whom society had rejected, the poor, the mentally ill, orphans, widows, women caught up in prostitution … in a word anyone who needed food, clothing, medicine or shelter. John was well used to people making judgments about others, so he would retort, listen “before you judge someone you must first know their heart and this is a sanctuary reserved to God alone”.  

 Like Jesus we should accept people as they are

 What I am trying to say here is that we should accept people as they are and not try to change them or make them into the way we would like them to be. This is to play God. Jesus has shown us how to relate to people who are different from us or have special needs. The Gospels are full of stories of Jesus hanging out with the wrong people, sinners of all shapes and sizes e.g. tax collectors like little Zacchaeus who had to climb up a tree to get a glimpse of Jesus or the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob[3]; like doing the wrong thing e.g. healing people on the Sabbath or by saying things that disturbed the religious authorities and for which they had him put to death. Just to give one example from Saint Mark’s Gospel where Jesus scandalized people by doing exactly what he came to do “I have come”, he said,  “that people may have life and enjoy it to the full[4].” The story goes, a man approached Jesus in a desperate state. He suffered from the dreaded disease of leprosy. Undoubtedly, he had tried everything to cure himself of this dreaded disease, but nothing could cure his decaying body.  In Jesus he saw the possibility, the hope that here was someone who could, who might help him out of this awful condition.

This poor man was an outcast, shunned and excluded from his family and his community. And so he came to Jesus pleading and beseeching help. There was a big problem however. A person suffering from leprosy was considered to be ritually unclean according to the Law of Moses and anyone who touched him/her would also be considered unclean.

So all eyes were on Jesus to see what he was going to do? How was he going to respond to the plea of this leper? Many in the crowed would be thinking, let’s get out of here and fast! We are told, however,  that Jesus was moved by pity, he was filled with compassion and did the unthinkable he touched the person with leprosy – in some translations it states that Jesus actually embraced the leper.  Can you imagine what the onlookers were thinking, whispering to each other “How on earth can he do such a thing, touch a leper?! They were in a state of shock.

I see the action of Jesus from three different perspectives; relevant to our topic. By accepting the person as he was – leprosy and all, Jesus acknowledged that this was a human being worthy of love, understanding and inclusion in his family and community.  By touching the man with leprosy, by embracing him – Jesus showed his love for him and welcomed him back to the community from which he had been excluded - leprosy and all, just as he was. Jesus welcomes people as they are as we would say “warts and all”. You might say as an afterthought, he cured him of his illness[5]. All three stages in this story are intertwined and interconnected and shows clearly Jesus’ attitude to a human being that was not only suffering because of an illness, but even more painfully the separation from family and the community. If one knows that one is loved, accepted and respected as you are, one can bear great suffering.  

Acceptance of the other and oneself as we are teaches us that there is a bit of good in the worst of us and a bit of bad or imperfection in the best of us; that we are all children of God and each of us has a right to be here. When I complain about myself or about you, I am complaining about God’s handiwork, God’s finest work of art. I am saying that I know better than God[6]. A human being is like a painting in progress… were  you to look over the shoulder of an artist as he/she brushes here, dabs there it is not really a pretty sight. However, when the painting is complete and you step back and look at it, it is a wonder to behold. It may not be a Caravaggio…it is an  individuals effort to depict a landscape, an event or whatever that has meaning and a certain spiritual dimension to it. 

 The human being is God’s work of art

 As human beings we are a God’s work of art in progress, while we are alive God is working away on his masterpiece, so to speak, his work is not complete until we die – which is nice, it is also comforting to know this! I saw a poster somewhere that read, be patient with me God has not finished with me yet! When one looks back at a life in death, what seemed to be messy blobs, half finished resolutions, a montage of conflicting ideas and behavior - now in the fullness of a life that comes to an end on earth, one can see all of the apparent contradictions and messy business absorbed into the canvas that is life on earth creating a beautiful landscape that is a joy to behold.  The divine artist steps back and looks at his masterpiece and says - it is good,[7] and so it is.    

 Another thought that comes to mind is this; we are all here for a purpose, there are no accidents and each of us has a mission in life. God sees us as individuals whom he loves passionately. Again after 2000 years of Christianity it is sad that Jesus’ dying words on the cross Ut omnes unum sint[8], that they all may be one, is still a dream to be realized.  We live in a world that is very much divided along race lines, material possessions, place of birth, color, religion and so on. The Church itself is built around hierarchy rather than a community, like the community that Jesus established with his disciples. Jesus has shown us that to live in community is to show concern for each other. Jesus shows how to serve and care for each other,   to feed the hungry, to nurse the sick, to shelter the homeless, to love the children. Putting people who were sick, poor, marginalized, sinners, outcast, untouchables at the centre of his pastoral strategy Jesus has shown us how he understood his mission and what our mission as his disciples is or should be. This can be seen clearly in all of the Gospels, especially in Saint Luke.

 The Last Judgment - our final exam

 Furthermore, in Matthew’s Gospel we get a preview of the questions that we will be asked at the Last Judgment.  Matthew in his Gospel in fact does exactly that he gives us a list of the questions we are going to be asked in our final exam, so we have no excuse! Matthew assures us that it is not necessary to do heroic acts here on earth in order to enter the Kingdom, so we can relax. He tells that it is those who feed the hungry, give shelter to the homeless, visit the sick, the housebound, prisoners that will inherit the Kingdom. This is something that is well within our grasp. In other words it is ordinary people who have engaged in the ministry of mercy that God welcomes into His Kingdom.[9] I believe all of you here will receive straight A’s in your final exam!

 A prophetic role

 I also believe that people who experience an unusual challenge in life e.g. people with a disability have a particular prophetic role to play in life. I don’t mean prophetic in the sense of predicting the future but rather they point to present fundamental values, such as - love, patience, acceptance, compassion, sharing, caring and hope. Blessed John Paul II prayed during the Jubilee Mass for People with a Disability: Lord of life and hope, every human limitation is ransomed and redeemed in you. Thanks to you, Lord Jesus, disability is not the last word on life. Love is the last word; it is your love that gives meaning to life.[10]  Many people I know that have a disability of one kind or another show very clearly the truth of the phrase of Saint Irenaeus - the glory of God is the human being fully alive[11].  These people do this by showing their love of live, the joy of living, by their resilience, the confident way in which they display their gifts and talents and the non-judgmental way that they see and relate to other people. 

 Conclusion

Another reason why I am pleased to be here to day, is the fact as a Saint John of God Brother my life has been enriched by working with and having the friendship of many people who have disability. I had hoped to tell you about some of these people, but unfortunately I have run out of time.  I would like to say however, that each of them had to face  real challenges in life, yet all of them have shown resilience, are prophets of hope and contagiously happy and fulfilled in life.  

Finally, people like to put other people “into boxes”, to label them, to typecast or stereotype them. This is a way of controlling people; it goes against everything that the Gospel teaches us and the example that Jesus himself has left us. Jean Vanier reminds us that “We do not have to be saviours of the world! We are simply human beings, enfolded in weakness and in hope, called together to change our world one heart at a time”.[12] We are pilgrims on a journey, we are limited and fragile and we need each other. Some appear more fragile than others and some are challenged by disability or illness but we are all companions on the journey of life. Each one has gifts and talents that when placed at the service of others are mutually enriching and life-giving.  Each person is the bearer of good news to share, has many gifts and talents that the community needs.

To exclude people because of a perceived difference is to imprison oneself in an artificial world that is sure to come tumbling down. The church must be the first to encourage and promote inclusion of all of God’s People at every level and in every circumstance.  To get back Charlie Landsborough’s song:   “we are not angels, we are people, only people with a million ways to fall,” has some truth to it, but at the same time as stated in scripture, a sister or brother helped by a companion on the journey of life is like a strong city[13]. Being inclusive and hospitable to all we meet on the journey of life is a mutually enriching experience. Trying to live life

 in this way, despite the difficulties and challenges one inevitably meets along the way, not only can make life bearable but enjoyable.   

Thank you for your attention

 

 



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