A time for healing
May 26th, 2010
By Bishop William J. Justice
Recently, Catholic Charities/CYO, the social services agency of the Archdiocese, presented its Loaves and Fishes Award. This award recognizes a person or agency that has helped fellow human beings to go beyond the ordinary, to reach out and care for others in a way that brings a new sense of life and hope to others and to those receiving the award.
This year the award went to a remarkable young woman, Immaculee Ilibagiza; a woman whose whole family was slaughtered in the genocidal uprising in the African nation of Ruwanda in 1994, which took the lives of Tutsis and Hutu political moderates by the Hutu-dominated government. To survive, she and a few other women lived in a small household bathroom for an extended period of time where they could not make a sound or they would have been discovered and brutally murdered. The estimates range from 500,000 to 800,000 people killed in that cataclysmic national upheaval, 20 percent of the total population of the country.
But what is even more remarkable than her survival is that she came to realize that if she was going to be able to really live her life, she needed to not let hatred and revenge take control or consume her. She understood that it if she didn’t, it would ultimately destroy her and make a mockery of her heroic effort to survive the horror of the unspeakable violence she witnessed. So she went home to where her parents had lived and had been killed. And it is reported she forgave those who were involved in the killing of her family. She did it because she felt her Catholic faith in Jesus was calling her to do so, but she also knew that in doing so she, with the power of God, would be able to let go of hatred and revenge and invite those who committed the heinous slaughter to admit their guilt and come to know the healing power of forgiveness. They, too, would be able to face life again!
To hear her story is to stand in awe. How could anyone do as she did? Especially after she saw what she saw! It is beyond belief that a person could be so forgiving. Most of us probably think we could never do such a thing. In fact it is hard enough for us to be with a family member who has just verbally hurt us, never mind the reality that Immaculee endured.
Many of you here this afternoon have endured painful things, mentally or physically, from a spouse, or a child or relative, or from a friend or a complete stranger, or a priest or a religious. Others of you might find it difficult to let go of anger toward God for the death of a child, or people you love whom you have lost in an accident, or who are suffering because of a struggle with depression or a horrible disease. You might be not only wondering how Immaculee did what she did, but even be upset at the fact that she did this. Why forgive? Why talk about healing? How is it possible to break into a sorrowing heart and let hope in?
Probably, humanly speaking, it is nearly impossible. But Immaculee and others who have struggled to heal gaping wounds of prejudice, fear and oppression, have participated in the story of God’s Son, Jesus. “God so loved the world that he sent his own Son, that we might have eternal life,” the Gospel declares. Rarely does a person die for a good person. But Jesus, while we were still in our sin, died for us, Saint Paul writes. “Then Jesus said on the cross, ‘Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And in his first Easter encounter with his disciples – the disciples who had at the least abandoned him, and Peter who had denied him three times! – Jesus’ first words were, “Peace be with you.” Then he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” In the power of Jesus Christ, all is possible. Through our Baptism, he lives in us. We are not alone. It does not all depend on us.
Remember the Gospel story of the two disciples on the road back to their town of Emmaus. They were in need of healing, of forgiveness. Their dream of Jesus being the Messiah and Liberator had ended with his cruel death on the Cross. Now they were going home, mourning his death and the death of their dream. But a man – who we know is Jesus – joins them and walks with them. They begin to discuss the Scripture. The man tells them that the Scripture foretold that Jesus must suffer and die. They brighten up. They invite him to dine with them. He agrees and takes bread, blesses it, and breaks it, the actions of the Last Supper. At that moment, they recognize him. He disappears, but hope has returned for the two disciples. They rush back to Jerusalem, and tell all the disciples what has happened, and they in turn tell them they too have heard Jesus had risen. Their sorrow, pain, and abandonment of Jesus was forgiven, was healed. They could have hope! And they were ready to proclaim it to God’s people to the ends of the earth!
It was Jesus’ gift of the Spirit that gave them courage after they were healed. God’s Spirit gave Immaculee the courage to face not only the murderers of her family and tribe, but the demons of hatred and revenge in her heart. Once faced, the joy of Jesus’ love radiated – and still does – in her life as it does in the community of the disciples today in the Body of Christ.
Our Second reading today celebrates the victory of the martyrs of the late 1st and early 2nd century Church. They were healed of sin and anger by courageously accepting the path of suffering and death in order to be faithful to the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ. Now they are celebrated – and are celebrating – in the joy of the heavenly kingdom! And every tear is being wiped away.
Our Gospel today is clear and direct: Jesus is the Good Shepherd and he gives his followers eternal life – his life. No one can take them – or us – out of his hand. If we trust in him. If we, with the disciples on the road to Emmaus, listen to his forgiving yet challenging Word, and we share his meal where he takes, blesses, breaks and gives us his body in the bread of life, then we can be confident that whether the journey to healing is long or short, he is walking with us with his rod and staff that gives us courage. He will take our hand and lead us safely home to where there is no more pain and suffering, where the former things have passed away. Let us now celebrate the Supper of the Lord that heals us with his forgiving love.
San Francisco Auxiliary Bishop William J. Justice delivered the homily above April 25, 2010 at St. Mary’s Cathedral.
From May 28, 2010 issue of Catholic San Francisco.