Vantage Point

The saints are so clear. "Apostolic zeal is a divine craziness I want you to have. Its symptoms are: hunger to know the Master; constant concern for souls; perseverance that nothing can shake". This is what Escriva wrote to his disciples.

"To win souls, to alleviate sorrow and suffering: this is the great goal God has given me." This was the plan of action which animated another missionary soul, Eustaquio Van Lieshout SS.CC, whose cause is being promoted for beatification.

Missionary spirit is in the DNA of any real Christian. A Christian who is not a missionary is not a Christian. And being missionary is always a risk.

Last year, twenty nine Catholic missionaries lost their lives while serving overseas, reported the Vatican news agency Fides recently.

Fr Anton Probst, a 68 year old German priest was murdered after saying midnight mass in Cameroon on Christmas Eve. When he returned to his room he was confronted by thieves who gagged and bound him and then beat him to death. Fr Anton has been working in Cameroon for 11 years.

Of the 29 people who died in 2003, twenty were priests, one was a brother, three were seminarians, four were lay people and one was an archbishop.

The Archbishop killed was Ireland's Archbishop Michael Courtney, who was shot dead in his car during an ambush on December 29 in Burundi where he was apostolic nuncio.

Those killed were people who risked their lives rather than give up their mission and apostolate. Pope John Paul II calls them 'martyrs of charity'.

East Timor

Recently I came across some very beautiful testimonies of missionaries in East Timor. This Southeast Asian country, which lies practically half way between the Philippines and Australia, has been marked in its recent history by a series of tragic political events.

In 1975 it was invaded by Indonesian forces and was incorporated as a province of Indonesia. Indonesia is four fifths Muslim while East Timor is 93% Catholic.

The takeover, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of East Timorese during the next two decades, ended in 1999 when an independence referendum won overwhelmingly. Indonesian military "militias" then rampaged through the province, killing hundreds of people, destroying schools, hospitals and homes.

But as Saint Paul says in his letter to the Romans, "Suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us..."

Last September, a group of high school students from an Australian Catholic school traveled to East Timor. "To actually see the hardship in their lives and hear of their experiences was disturbing", wrote Josh Simpson, 15, after the trip.

"But their generosity, warm hospitality and the courageous openness, with which they shared their personal lives, were deeply impressive.

"One day we went to a Mass in a forest on a hill. Just about everyone from the village was standing on the hill. It started to rain, but they all remained there. All standing. All singing. The spirit they had seemed to be bigger than the rain that was pouring."

Mary and Tess are two Australian nuns of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart working in East Timor.

In a letter which they sent to their fellow Sisters, they describe some of their adventures. "In a tin shack with no ventilation and minimal light, we visited a lady crippled from a stroke. She was huddled in the corner on a bed of bare bamboo boards. Her right arm, hand, leg and foot are wasted with contractures due to the stroke and lack of any medical attention.

She is cared for by another old lady who is shrunken and paper thin due to successive years of insufficient food and who still suffers mentally from the trauma which she endured during the Indonesian occupation.

"In the next hut was a woman who was in mourning for her dead husband. She sobbed in my arms, and although I could offer no words of comfort in her spoken language, she understood the universal language of love and compassion, expressed in a close embrace where heart spoke to heart.

From there we visited an old couple who have TB and who look like living skeletons.... Besides the food and clothing, we also gave them some Panadol tablets. Seeing the joy on their face anyone would think they received the world.

The last call was to a wizened old lady with a Mona Lisa smile who lives alone in a tin shed. Despite her dire poverty, she is happy and contented... I was apologetic as I had no medication to offer them, but they assured me that this does not matter; they were just happy to see me!

The Timorese people are teaching me so much about gratitude, acceptance, forgiveness, endurance, patience, faith, hope, love and child-like delight in the beauty of life, in spite of such dire poverty and much suffering", concludes Sister Mary.

All this makes one wonder who is poor and who is rich in life.

(c) Fr. Pius Sammut, OCD. Permission is hereby granted for any non-commercial use, provided that the content is unaltered from its original state, if this copyright notice is included.