Monday, April 27, 2009

In the Vineyard

For all the "sexier" stuff out there, it's sometimes easy and all too tempting to forget that at its truest and best, the work of the church -- and its teachings in action -- take place a long ways away from the headlines.

Along those lines, then, a couple stories from the trenches....

First, CNS notes the severe injuries suffered by a local Caritas director who went into the line of fire in a war-torn corner of Sri Lanka "where tens of thousands of civilians have been displaced in recent days":
Father T. R. Vasanthaseelan, director of Caritas Vanni-Hudec, had to have one leg amputated after shells struck St. Anthony Church in Valaignarmadam April 23. Many civilians had sought safety in the church.

According to Caritas Internationalis headquarters in Rome, Father James Pathinathan, a member of the National Commission for Justice, Peace and Human Development, also was injured and was taken to a hospital in Anuradhapura. Caritas is an international confederation of Catholic relief, development and social service organizations.

Caritas Internationalis Secretary-General Lesley-Anne Knight expressed concern for the people of Vanni and the church personnel working there.

"Father Vasanthaseelan is a much loved figure in Sri Lanka and throughout the Caritas confederation. He is a man of peace, courage and hope. He has lived among the people he seeks to serve and accompanied them through their suffering," Knight said in a statement.

"That aid workers are suffering only underlines how innocent people, women and children are being killed and injured in Sri Lanka's civil war and reinforces our calls for an immediate cease-fire," she said.

"Both the government of Sri Lanka and the Tamil Tiger rebels have obligations to protect the lives of civilians and allow humanitarian access. The United Nations and the international community must hold them to these commitments," she said.

Caritas Internationalis said it had launched an appeal to provide emergency assistance to the war victims, including those made homeless by the fighting, returnees and war-affected families, especially women and children.

Caritas Sri Lanka's national director, Father Damian Fernando, said Caritas was continuing to help the needy and negotiate with the government to find a lasting solution for peace in the country.

"Sri Lanka is undergoing the worst scenario. Innocent civilians are paying a huge cost and are the worst hit. Already there are more than 130,000 who have crossed over to the government-controlled side," Father Fernando said.

"These people are coming out in highly traumatized conditions. Most of them are tired and worn out after months of suffering. Many of them are injured and some of them are very severely wounded. The hospitals have totally exceeded their capacity to receive the wounded," he said.

Vanni is the last bastion of the Tamil rebels, known as the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, who run a de facto state of more than 300,000 ethnic Tamil people. The rebel group launched an independence struggle against the Sinhalese-led government in 1983; since then the war has killed about 80,000 people and displaced more than a million.
...and -- with an eye to the HolyLand PopeTrip that begins in just ten days' time -- highlights the work of an Israeli home for disabled kids run by Vincentian sisters:
The creamy stones of the Sacred Heart Home gleam in the sun, and squeals of delight echo in the corridors when Sister Pascale Jarjour enters a room.

When she talks about an individual child's case, tears fill her eyes. But when she's with one of her 60 little charges, it's all smiles, caresses and kisses.

Sister Jarjour is one of four members of the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul and 105 staff members who care for the 60 severely physically and mentally disabled children who call Sacred Heart their home. Two hundred children attend the day care center in the same compound.

Like the inhabitants of Haifa itself, the residents and staff of the home are Muslims, Jews, Druze and Christians.

Some parents arrange for their children's baptisms or bar mitzvahs while they are at the home, and several take their children home briefly for their own religious holidays, Sister Jarjour said. During Passover this year, one couple brought everything needed for a Seder and celebrated with their 1-year-old son who suffered severe brain damage as a result of choking.

"Whether we are Christians, Muslims, Druze or Jews, suffering is the same and the small joys are the same," Sister Jarjour said.

"Many families say they want to share this experience with the politicians, to say to them, 'We can live together,'" she said.

The Lebanese-born sister has worked in Israel for 30 years and spent the last 20 of them in Haifa at the home for disabled children, who range in age from 2 months to 21 years.

While only about 5 percent of the children are from Christian families, Sister Jarjour said the work "has been a profoundly Christian experience."

"I would love to tell everyone about Jesus, but in this situation I cannot," she said. "However, in this work, what you do is more important that what you say, and people see what we do."
And in China -- where the genuine difficulties often experienced by Christians are no secret -- the church recently mourned a 93 year-old priest who, after thirty years in a prison camp, returned to the simple ministry of a catechist on his release:
The Catholics of Guangzhou today said their last goodbye to Fr. Francis Tan Tiande, who died last April 23 at the age of 93. He spent almost 30 years of his life in a prison camp in Heilongjiang. But the fame of his witness and his apostolic work is far from dead....

[T]estimonies are coming from all over the world about the way in which Fr. Tan helped many to discover the beauty of Christianity, and then accompanied them to baptism. For many new faithful in the diocese of Guangzhou, the life of Fr. Tan, and even his imprisonment, are "a blessing for us Catholic Chinese."

Teresa, a young Catholic, was baptized in 2003. She arrived at the faith after a long journey of searching. Unlike the Catholics older than her, she has not experienced persecution, but she knows well what happened in the past, and has great respect for the confessors of the faith. Among these, Fr. Tan Tiande has a special place. In addition to meeting with him each week, Teresa also read his famous book of brief but intense recollections of his thirty years in prison. Like many other Catholics from Guangzhou, she has enormous respect for him. She considers him a priest of strong faith, who truly loved God and men.

Before receiving Baptism, Teresa went a number of times to the Mass celebrated by Fr. Tan, and was struck by his preaching, an unvarnished call to conversion.

Shortly after being set free, Fr. Tan returned to his service at the cathedral, where for years he was involved in teaching the catechumens. He stopped teaching catechesis only in the past few years, as he was growing weaker. Every Sunday, he made himself useful by greeting the many people attending Mass, talking with them, encouraging them, blessing the religious objects they had bought.

Shortly before he died, Teresa went to visit Fr. Tan in the hospital. In his room were the bishop, priests, sisters, and many others who had come to say goodbye to the elderly priest. Teresa stopped at the entrance to watch, deeply moved. Fr. Tan held his arm up in the air, constantly blessing everyone. "That gesture," Teresa says, "was his goodbye to us of the Church of Guangzhou. It was a blessing to us Catholic Chinese, so that, like him, we may remain faithful to God until the end."

Amid the storms of a 24-hour news cycle, it's often easy, and all too tempting, to define the days by what's bad as opposed to what's good, to glom on controversies, crusades or buzz at the expense of the stories and people a waiting world that wants to believe should know, and deep down inside, really longs to hear.

This is the Easter Season -- that moment of grace when the first witnesses of the Resurrection changed the lives of masses not by spreading around their own interests, causes or tastes, but with one simple, unimpeachable testimony: "We have seen the Lord."

Then as now, we owe our faith to these folks, who realize day in and day out that the church doesn't rise and fall on what everybody else does or doesn't do, but what they -- what every last one of us, in every place we go and for each person we meet -- do or don't.

Even this Easter, even in our midst, these witnesses exist in droves -- from the clinic to the classroom, the sanctuary to the minefield, the office and the shelter, all across the globe... and even to our own kitchen tables.

Sure, they exist far from the headlines and aren't the "sexiest" story going. When it comes to the life of this body, however, they're the most valuable and crucial thing we've got.

In each of them, we haven't just seen the Lord -- we see Him anew all the time. Both on and off the printed page, may we always give 'em the admiration, attention and thanks they deserve.