Christians give Hope - Algeria

Algeria is a ticking time bomb, with a surge in migration, an uncertain political climate, and an economic crisis facing its 43 million inhabitants, two-thirds of whom are aged under 30, with one-third of its young people unemployed. And the Islamists are waiting for their moment.

Such a situation needs hope, hope in the future of the country. Father Paul-Elie has this Hope. He knows his own country, he knows his own people, and he has an insight in to what people are thinking – and not just the Christians. As a young man he was a Muslim, in those days he was called Ali. He lived through the dark years of Algeria’s civil war in the 1990s.

Over 200,000 people died, in a pitiless battle between Islamist extremists and the army. That was when he lost Hope, no longer believing in anything, focusing only on his studies towards his diploma in information theory. One day he went with a cousin to a hidden chapel run by an Evangelical Christian community. ‘There I heard Jesus’, he recalls. ‘He spoke to me by my name and told me He was protecting me and had always done so. I felt loved as never before. I was deeply moved, and for ten minutes I could only weep.’ 

He was baptised, but he still hungered for the Truth. Years later a Catholic missionary revealed the fullness of Truth and he converted. But Islamists learned that he had converted, and hunted him, threatening his family. He left for Europe, still restless at heart. In Belgium he joined a religious community, then moved on to France and at the age of 34 began to study Theology. Six years later, in 2016, he was ordained to the priesthood.

Now he is home again, a priest of the Missionary Fraternity of John Paul II. In the name of the Fraternity, or rather ‘in Jesus’ name’, he has returned to Algeria. ‘I am needed here’, he says. ‘My heart is at peace, even if the storms should rage around me.’ He recalls the words of Saint Teresa of Avila who once complained to the Lord, saying Where were you, my beloved Jesus? Where were you during this terrible storm?’ 

Our Lord responded, I was in the innermost depths of your heart.’ That’s how Father Paul-Elie feels as well, and it is this inner peace from God that he wants to bring to his people. According to the Protestant Church of Algeria there are over 200,000 converts from Islam, most of them are Protestants, but the number of Catholics is also growing.

Precise figures are hard to come by. Most live in the Kabylie region of northern Algeria where Father Paul-Elie comes from. Many of them live widely scattered among the mountain villages.

He wants to bring them the Lord in the Eucharist. He wants to lead a ‘dialogue of coexistence’ between Catholics and other faiths in the villages so that they can all experience the love of Christ.

But for this work he needs a robust vehicle, and he has asked us to help him. We have promised to help him bring Hope, invincible Hope in the Risen One.


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Hope in an imperfect World - Pope Benedict XVI

We need the greater and lesser hopes that keep us going day by day. But these are not enough without the great Hope, which must surpass everything else. This great Hope can only be God, who encompasses the whole of reality and who can bestow upon us what we, by ourselves, cannot attain. The fact that it comes to us as a gift is actually part of Hope.

God is the foundation of Hope: not any god, but the God who has a human face and who has loved us to the end, each one of us and humanity in its entirety.

His Kingdom is not an imaginary hereafter, situated in a future that will never arrive; His Kingdom is present wherever He is loved and wherever His love reaches us.

His love alone gives us the possibility of soberly persevering day by day, without ceasing to be spurred on by Hope, in a world which by its very nature is imperfect.

His love is at the same time our guarantee of the existence of what we only vaguely sense and which nevertheless, in our deepest self, we await: a life that is ‘truly’ life.

 

Edited and Adapted from Spe Salvi No. 31.


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God is the Great Hope - Pope Benedict XVI

In this sense it is true that anyone who does not know God, even though he may entertain all kinds of hopes, is ultimately without Hope, without the great Hope that sustains the whole of life (cf. Eph 2:12).

Man’s great, true Hope which holds firm in spite of all disappointments can only be God — God who has loved us and who continues to love us ‘to the end,’ until all ‘is accomplished’ (cf. Jn 13:1 and 19:30).

Whoever is moved by Love begins to perceive what ‘life’ really is. He begins to perceive the meaning of the word of hope that we encountered in the Baptismal Rite: from faith I await ‘eternal life’—the true life which, whole and unthreatened, in all its fullness, is simply life.

Jesus, who said that He had come so that we might have life and have it in its fullness, in abundance (cf. Jn 10:10), has also explained to us what ‘life’ means: ‘this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent’ (Jn 17:3).

Life in its true sense is not something we have exclusively in or from ourselves: it is a relationship. And life in its totality is a relationship with Him who is the source of life.

If we are in relation with Him who does not die, who is Life itself and Love itself, then we are in life. Then we ‘live’.

 

Edited and Adapted from Spe Salvi No. 27.


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Hope for the least of God’s Children - India

It was in Bihar State that Mahatma Gandhi first launched his nonviolent civil disobedience campaign, which ultimately led to Indian independence.

But today that is little more than history for those living in Bihar, the poorest state on the Indian subcontinent.

When Catholics here pray the words ‘Give us this day our daily bread’ they do so in earnest, as many of them do not even have the bread they need.

And when they pray, ‘Forgive us our trespasses’, many have in mind the burden of financial debt that they can never shake off, on account of sinful rates of interest.

This particularly affects Christians, who almost all belonging to the Dalits, the lowest caste in India.

  • They are not allowed to drink from public wells;
  • They are forced to live in hovels on the edges of towns and villages and frequently
  • They cannot even send their children to the state schools.

This is why a disproportionately high number of them are illiterate. But the diocese has set up Small Christian Communities (SCCs), which are helping small groups learn to read and write. Most of those in these groups are women. They are also learning basic life skills like cooking and needlework.

In SCCs also they pray together and learn more about their faith and about Jesus; that every one has equal dignity in the sight of God; and that the family can be a place of selfless love – so they can bring the message of Christ’s joy into their poor homes and hovels, and into the hearts of their families. In the diocese of Buxar 300 women are involved in one of these programmes.

They are also learning that they are not outcasts, that their faith unites them and that they can mutually support one another. We are supporting these communities.

The poorest of the poor among the Dalits are the Musahars. They are being ministered to by the Claretian Fathers, who have asked our help to build a multipurpose hall where Musahar children can learn to read and write, to pray and grow together and be ministered to in their spiritual needs.

The Fathers explain that such a building ‘would be a blessing for these people and would give them a sense of self-confidence and an awareness of their own dignity’. We are being called to help the Claretian Fathers bring the hope and joy to these long suffering souls.


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Witnesses of Hope - Pope Benedict XVI

Certainly, in our many different sufferings and trials we always need the lesser and greater hopes too — a kind visit, the healing of internal and external wounds, a favourable resolution of a crisis, and so on.

In our lesser trials these kinds of hope may even be sufficient. But in truly great trials, where I must make a definitive decision to place the truth before my own welfare, career and possessions, I need the certitude of that true, great Hope.

For this we need witnesses — martyrs — who have given themselves totally, so as to show us the way — day after day. We need them if we are to prefer goodness to comfort, even in the little choices we face each day — knowing that this is how we live life to the full.

The capacity to suffer for the sake of the Truth is the measure of humanity.

Yet this capacity to suffer depends on the type and extent of the Hope that we bear within us and build upon.

The saints were able to make the great journey of human existence in the way that Christ had done before them, because they were brimming with great Hope.

 

Edited and Adapted from Spe Salvi No. 39.


God alone can inspire people - Cuba

Thanks to your help and generosity, we were able to support the Servants of Mary, Help of the Sick in Cuba. Sister Brunilda writes to say that ‘thanks to your help’ she and her three fellow sisters are living their lives to ‘the heartbeat of divine providence’.

For God alone ‘can inspire people to help’ for projects such as these, where ‘the sick are suffering in inhuman conditions, without the right medication and often in houses that have been destroyed by the storms’. The sisters are the ‘feet and hands’ of Jesus, she writes.

‘But you are the heart and the nervous system that is keeping alive the body of Christ in Cuba.’

Without the help of our benefactors the sisters could not ‘keep God’s Hand open to heal, to comfort and bestow His Mercy, freely and without expecting any reward’.


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Faith and Truth - Pope Francis

Faith without truth does not save, it does not provide a sure footing. It remains a beautiful story, the projection of our deep yearning for happiness, something capable of satisfying us to the extent that we are willing to deceive ourselves.

Either that, or it is reduced to a lofty sentiment which brings consolation and cheer, yet remains prey to the vagaries of our spirit and the changing seasons, incapable of sustaining a steady journey through life. But precisely because of its intrinsic link to truth, faith is instead able to offer a new light, for it sees further into the distance and takes into account the hand of God, who remains faithful to His covenant and His promises.

Today more than ever, we need to be reminded of this bond between faith and truth, given the crisis of truth in our age. In contemporary culture, we often tend to consider the only real truth to be that of technology: truth is what we succeed in building and measuring by our scientific know-how, truth is what works and what makes life easier and more comfortable. Nowadays this appears as the only truth that is certain, the only truth that can be shared, the only truth that can serve as a basis for discussion or for common undertakings.

Yet at the other end of the scale we are willing to allow for subjective truths of the individual, which consist in fidelity to his or her deepest convictions, yet these are truths valid only for that individual and not capable of being proposed to others in an effort to serve the common good.

But Truth itself, the truth which would comprehensively explain our life as individuals and in society, is regarded with suspicion. Surely this kind of truth is what was claimed by the great totalitarian movements of the last century, a truth that imposed its own world view in order to crush the actual lives of individuals. In the end, what we are left with is Relativism, in which the question of universal truth — and ultimately this means the question of God — is no longer relevant.

It would be logical, from this point of view, to attempt to sever the bond between Religion and Truth, because it seems to lie at the root of fanaticism, which proves oppressive for anyone who does not share the same beliefs. In this regard, though, we can speak of a massive amnesia in our contemporary world.

The question of truth is really a question of memory, deep memory, for it deals with something prior to ourselves and can succeed in uniting us in a way that transcends our petty and limited individual consciousness.

It is a question about the origin of all that is, in whose light we can glimpse the goal and thus the meaning of our common path.

 

Adapted from Pope Francis’ Encyclical Letter Lumen Fidei, 29 June 2013 Paragraphs 24 and 25.


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Conscience and the Common Good

The theme of conscience is fundamental for a free and just society.

The great achievements of the modern age – the recognition and guarantee of freedom of conscience, of human rights, of the freedom of science and hence of a free society – should be confirmed and developed while keeping reason and freedom open to their transcendent foundation, so as to ensure that these achievements are not undone.

The quality of social and civil life and the quality of democracy depend in large measure on this ‘critical’ point – conscience, on the way it is understood and the way it is informed.

If, in keeping with the prevailing modern idea, conscience is reduced to the subjective field to which religion and morality have been banished, then the crisis of the West has no remedy and Europe is destined to collapse in on itself.

If, on the other hand, conscience is rediscovered as the place in which to listen to truth and good, the place of responsibility before God and before fellow human beings – in other words, the bulwark against all forms of tyranny – then there is hope for the future.

This brings us back to conscience as the keystone on which to base a culture and build up the common good.

It is by forming consciences that the Church makes her most specific and valuable contribution to society.

It is a contribution that begins in the family and is strongly reinforced in the parish, where infants, children and young people learn to deepen their knowledge of the sacred Scriptures, the ‘great codex’ of European culture; at the same time they learn what it means for a community to be built upon gift, not upon economic interests or ideology, but upon love, ‘the principal driving force behind the authentic development of every person and of all humanity’ (Caritas in Veritate, 1).

This logic of gratuitousness, learnt in infancy and adolescence, is then lived out in every area of life, in games, in sport, in interpersonal relations, in art, in voluntary service to the poor and the suffering, and once it has been assimilated it can be applied to the most complex areas of political and economic life so as to build up a polis that is welcoming and hospitable, but at the same time not empty, not falsely neutral, but rich in humanity, with a strongly ethical dimension.

It is here that the lay faithful are called to give generously of the formation they have received, guided by the principles of the Church’s Social Doctrine, for the sake of authentic secularism, social justice, the defence of life and of the family, freedom of religion and education.

 

National Croatian Theatre – Zagreb. Saturday, 4 June 2011.


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The Ven. Cardinal Van Thuan - Witness to Hope

In 1975 the future Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan (1928 – 2002) was named coadjutor archbishop of Saigon, three months later he was imprisoned by the communist government. The next thirteen years of his life in the regime’s prisons, nine of them in solitary confinement.

In his later years Cardinal Van Thuan was president of the Pontifical Commission on Justice and Peace in the Vatican. He passed away from cancer in September 2002. His cause for canonisation is being advanced.

Here in his own words are some reminiscences of his extraordinary Witness to Hope.


Prayer Saved my life

In my initial period in prison I spent many months in an extremely narrow space without windows, half suffocated by the heat and humidity. Often I had great difficulty in breathing. 

They tortured me by leaving me under lights day and night for ten days and then depriving me of all light for long periods. One day in the darkness I noticed a tiny hole through which the light shone. From then on I used put my nostrils there to breathe more easily.

Whenever there were floods snakes used to invade my cell and sometimes climbed my legs to avoid the water. They used stay with me until the floods passed. 

I had no toilet but since I received hardly any food I had little need of one. My daily rations consisted of some rice and vegetables cooked with salt. 

From five in the morning until 11.30 at night there was a constant din of voices over loudspeakers. To distract myself I did exercises, jumped, danced, sang and prayed. Prayer saved my life

In moments of great suffering, sometimes when I wanted to pray I could not. I was desperately tired, sick and hungry …often I was tempted to despair and rebellion. But the Lord always helped me.


The art of prayer

In my later years in prison five policemen guarded me. Some even studied Latin to censor any documents or telegrams sent from the bishops in Rome. 

One day a policeman asked me: ‘Can you teach me some song in Latin?’ I replied, ‘I’ll sing some and you can choose.’ He chose the Veni Creator (Come Holy Spirit) and asked me to write out the words. I did so not really expecting that he would learn them. 

But in a few days he had learned them really well and sang them every morning while he was on guard. I thought to myself: ‘When an archbishop cannot pray, the Lord sends him a policeman to sing the Veni Creator and help him to pray!

On another occasion a farmer came to the prison and asked permission to visit me. The police permitted it and he spent a few minutes with me. When he was leaving he asked: ‘Please, pray for me’, and he added: ‘Father, one prayer from you in prison is worth a hundred offered in freedom.’ 

That day the Holy Spirit sent a farmer to teach me the value of prayer in prison.


GOD knows what he is doing

While in prison I wrote several books. All our religious literature had been burned and permission to publish new ones refused. I wondered how, as a pastor, I could encourage the faithful. At that time I was in a closely guarded cell but children were allowed to visit me. 

One day I said to one of them: ‘Ask your mother to buy me a calendar-block’. When I received it I wrote my thoughts on the back of a sheet each night and in this way I produced my first book Pilgrims on the Road of Hope. 

At another time when I was feeling very low and had no desire to write I received a request from Pope John Paul II asking me to write some spiritual exercises. These later became the work Witnesses to Hope.

I have personally experienced the sorrow of a pastor forbidden to care for his people and forced to abandon his diocese. It caused me great torment to be in prison while the people were abandoned. But I discovered that it had all been God’s work. 

One night I sensed a voice in my heart saying: ‘François, God holds you in His hands. Always seek His will. God knows what He is doing. He will seek other collaborators who work better than you. Be at peace.’ 

That night I experienced a deep peace in my heart and I decided to seek God’s Will every minute of my life.


The love of Christ changes people

At one stage while in prison five young jailers, university students, guarded me. One reason that I survived was because of their friendship.

Those in charge had forbidden them to speak to me. Initially my guards were changed every fifteen days. Prison authorities believed the guards risked being contaminated if left with me for any length of time. 

Eventually they stopped changing them because apparently they were afraid I would contaminate the whole force. And so the young students became my friends. The Love of Christ has great power to change people.

I would chat with them through the door about my life, the various countries I had visited, my family, my childhood etc. I taught them English, French, and even a little Russian. 

One day I asked one of them to bring something to trim a piece of wood. He did and I was able to make a cross. Even though all religious symbols were prohibited, I now had a cross in my quarters. I hid it in a bar of soap. 

Another time I asked for a piece of wire and a pair of pliers. My friendly policeman said: ‘I will bring them but you have to finish in four hours’ – the length of his particular shift. In four hours I had fashioned a chain for my cross. The cross was later enclosed in silver and it is the cross and chain I still wear.’


True Medicine True Life

The day I was arrested I had to leave everything behind me. The following day I was allowed to write and ask my friends to bring my clothes, toothpaste, etc. I also asked them to include some wine ‘as medicine’. My friends understood. They sent me a little bottle of Mass-wine labelled ‘Medicine for Stomach Aches’ and also some hosts hidden in a little burner used to keep the humidity at bay.

Every night I kept a tiny piece of bread for the following day’s Eucharist. And so every day for many years I had the joy of celebrating Mass with three drops of wine and one of water in my palm. This was my altar, my cathedral. 

For me it was the true medicine of body and soul something to stave off death in order to live for ever in Christ.

 

Adapted and edited from ‘Preaching Hope from prison: Cardinal François Nguyen Van Thuan’ https://www.catholicireland.net/preaching-hope-from-prison-cardinal-francois-nguyen-van-thuan/


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The Truth: The Law of Life and Freedom

At Mount Sinai, God shows Himself in mysterious ways. He is the God who is at once close at hand and far-away; He is in the world but not of it. He is the God who comes to meet us, but who will not be possessed.

On Mount Sinai, the truth of ‘who God is’ became the foundation and guarantee of the Covenant. Moses is given the Law.

But what is this Law? It is the Law of life and freedom. At the Red Sea, the people had experienced a great liberation. They had seen the power and fidelity of God; they had discovered that He is the God who does indeed set His people free as He had promised. But now on the heights of Sinai, this same God seals His love by making the Covenant that He will never renounce. If the people obey His Law, they will know freedom for ever.

The Exodus and the Covenant are not just events of the past; they are for ever the destiny of all God’s people.

The encounter of God and Moses on this Mountain enshrines at the heart of our religion the mystery of liberating obedience, which finds its fulfilment in the perfect obedience of Christ in the Incarnation and on the Cross.3 We too shall be truly free if we learn to obey as Jesus did.4

The Ten Commandments are not an arbitrary imposition of a tyrannical Lord. They were written in stone; but before that, they were written on the human heart as the universal moral law, valid in every time and place.

Today as always, the Ten Words of the Law provide the only true basis for the lives of individuals, societies and nations.

Today as always, they are the only future of the human family.

  • They save man from the destructive force of egoism, hatred and falsehood.
  • They point out all the false gods that draw him into slavery:
    • The love of self to the exclusion of God,
    • The greed for power and pleasure that overturns the order of justice and degrades our human dignity and that of our neighbour.

If we turn from these false idols and follow the God who sets His people free and remains always with them, then we shall emerge like Moses, after forty days on the mountain, ‘shining with glory’5, ablaze with the light of God!

To keep the Commandments is be faithful to God, but it is also to be faithful to ourselves, to our true nature and our deepest aspirations.

Sinai finds its fulfilment on another mountain, the Mountain of the Transfiguration, where Jesus appears to His Apostles shining with the glory of God. Moses and Elijah stand with Him to testify that the fullness of God’s revelation is found in the glorified Christ.

On the Mountain of the Transfiguration, God speaks from the cloud, as He had done on Sinai. But there He says: ‘This is my beloved Son; listen to Him’ (Mk 9:7).

On the Mountain of the Transfiguration, God commands us to listen to His Son, because ‘no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal Him’ (Mt 11:27).

And so we learn that the true name of God is FATHER. The name which is beyond all other names: ABBA!6

And in Jesus we learn that our true name is SON, DAUGHTER. We learn that the God of the Exodus and the Covenant sets His people free because they are His sons and daughters, created not for slavery but for ‘the glorious liberty of the children of God’.7

The person delivered by Jesus Christ into true freedom is aware of being bound not externally by a multitude of prescriptions, but internally by the love which has taken hold in the deepest recesses of his heart.

The Ten Commandments are the law of freedom: not the freedom to follow our blind passions, but the freedom to love, to choose what is good in every situation, even when to do so is a burden.

It is not an impersonal law that we obey; what is required is loving surrender to the Father through Christ Jesus in the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom 6:14; Gal 5:18).

In revealing Himself on the Mountain and giving His Law, God revealed man to man himself. Sinai stands at the very heart of the truth about man and his destiny.

 

Adapted and edited from a Homily given by Pope Saint John Paul II at St Catherine’s Monastery, Mount Sinai, 26 February 2000.
3 cf. Phil 2:8; Heb 5:8-9
4 cf. Heb 5:8
5 Saint Gregory of Nyssa, The Life of Moses, II, 230
6 cf. Gal 4:6
7 Rom 8:21


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