Christ Comes Begging with Us

Quietly, a young religious Sister enters the noisy bar. She belongs to the congregation of the Little Sisters of the Poor and she is begging for alms. She stretches her hand out to a man, who is notorious for his hatred of the Church, and he spits in her face, laughing derisively. Quietly, she wipes her face and says, That was for me. Now will you give me something for the poor?The mocking smile dies on the man’s face and his eyes open in wonderment. He asks her pardon and gives – more than she had dared to hope.

Bishop Raul Castillo of La Guaira, Venezuela, is happy to tell people this true story. It takes a lot of courage, he says, to put your dignity in your open hands and beg. But, as he also knows, ‘Christ comes begging with us.’ For here it is about ‘God’s first love, the poor’, as Emeritus Pope Benedict XVI puts it in his book on Jesus of Nazareth.

For Bishop Raul, that also includes his priests, religious Sisters and seminarians. And it is they who are combatting the immense spiritual poverty of today, for as Pope Francis says in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium: ‘The worst discrimination which the poor suffer is the lack of spiritual care.’

The 19 young men in Saint Peter’s Seminary in La Guaira are well aware of this. They see the poverty in the country, the lack of basic necessities and the widespread violence. They themselves suffer from the same shortages and Bishop Raul has asked for help to provide them with the barest necessities – soap, eggs, milk, flour, paper. As for money, they have none, and in any case it would be of little worth, for inflation here is the highest in the world today.

Money from abroad would help them to address the material needs and at the same time prepare for the growing spiritual need. Many of the seminarians have themselves known past sorrow and suffering.

When Luis Carlos felt the call of God, he was already engaged. The parting was not easy. Fellow seminarian Caesar Rafael suffered cancer of the lymph nodes at the age of 10. He underwent chemotherapy, but then when he was 14 the cancer returned. This time the chemotherapy was followed by radiotherapy. Since then, he seems to have been in good health. He gave up his studies in machine engineering after two years and entered the seminary.

Another student for the priesthood, Esteban Marcanos lost his mother when he was just one year old. He was brought up by his father in his grandparents’ house. Then his father died when he was just 16. Yet he never ceased to believe in God’s love, and today he is training for the priesthood.

No one knows what will happen to this country in the future. But one thing is certain: without the Church the spiritual poverty will continue to increase. Luis, Caesar and Esteban want to combat this with the sacraments, the signs of God’s love.

And this too is what the 20 young men in the seminary of the Mother of the Redeemer in Carupano are preparing for. They also have no fear of the future, although they too lack even the barest necessities.

We have promised to help both Carupano and La Guaira. Our aid will help them towards their goal, expressed in the words of Pope Francis: ‘Our preferential option for the poor must mainly translate into a privileged and preferential religious care.’ (Evangelii Gaudium, 200).

This article can be found in Mirror 0118.

Pastors for Future Pastors - Rectors meet in Rome

In his homily for All Saints Day, Pope Gregory the Great, a Saint and Doctor of the Church, lists some of the features of the great Communion of the Saints: joy, serenity, consolation, brotherliness. They are the fruit of steadfastness, strength of soul and diligence.

Such words also describe the atmosphere encountered by the rectors and seminary directors who have converged on Rome from different countries and continents, to spend four weeks together at the international pontifical college of ‘Maria Mater Ecclesiae’.

Most are from Africa and Latin America. Naturally there is a programme of events, with lectures, concelebrated Masses, prayer, Rosary, working groups on marriage and the family apostolate and other pastoral themes. But the most important aspect is the opportunity to meet as friends of God and experience this tangible communion of those who are ‘called to be saints’, as Saint Paul says in his Letter to the Romans (1:7). Last year there were 89 of them from 24 different countries.

Most come from the poorest countries, such as Ecuador, Vietnam and the Central African Republic, where the Church has neither the resources nor the facilities for such encounters. The largest contingent last year, almost half the number, was from Madagascar. Almost none of them could afford the flight and accommodation in Rome. So once again ACN was privileged to support this year’s encounter.

For the rectors and formators of the seminaries, these annual meetings in Rome with their brothers from all over the world are an experience that strengthens the soul and brings new courage for the future, despite the often hostile circumstances they face in their own countries.

Father Etienne Randriamanantsoa from Madagascar wants to ‘share these experiences and talks with my brother priests in the diocese’, while Father Ludwig Takuali Utuku from Central Africa feels spiritually renewed and enriched. He was particularly impressed by some of the more profound aspects of the formation, in particular the talks on human maturity and psychology, and he is looking forward to passing on this understanding to his students.

Father Isidor Makutu from Tanzania is also enthusiastic about the holistic approach to the formation of his future priests. He is convinced that ‘the seed being sown here will bear fruit throughout the world’. As for Father Sean Byrnes from the diocese of Wagga in Australia, he sees his vocation in a new light today:It is a calling of God to be pastors for future pastors’, he says. All these men return home to their own countries with renewed energy.

They sense what Saint Paul writes in his Letter to Timothy: ‘The goal of our instruction is love from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith’ (1 Tim 1:5).

This article can be found in Mirror 0118.

Lent and the Art of Living - Tony Agnesi

In the book of Proverbs we are offered two ways to live our lives1. We can be

  • seekers of good or
  • pursuers of evil.

We can have a positive attitude building people up, or a negative one tearing people down.

Do you know someone who is always spreading the dirt about relatives, friends, or people at work? It seems that they never have a nice thing to say about anyone. Have you found that their negativity rubs off on you? Does it steal your energy?

Or, are you the one spreading negative thoughts and don’t even know it? Are you willingly participating in the daily gossip to be accepted as part of the crowd?

‘Who is the man who delights in life, who loves to see the good days? Keep your tongue from evil, your lips from speaking lies. Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it.’

Psalm 34:13-15

Lent is a great time to ask ourselves if we are willingly or even unwillingly adding to the negativity in our lives. Are we critical and negative, bitter and envious of others, are we hurtful and selfish? If so, Proverbs warns us, we will have sad, painful, and troubled lives.

Have you ever heard the saying ‘what goes around comes around?’ My dad used to tell me, ‘You become like the people you hang out with.’ It is said that you are the average of the seven people you spend the most time with.

If you associate with negative people, you will become negative. Hang out with complainers, you will be a complainer. Bitter, envious, selfish friends will make you a bitter envious and selfish person. You will never make positive changes in your life if you surround yourself with negative people.

Pope Francis in an Ash Wednesday message said that if you want to give up something for Lent, make it indifference to our neighbour.

Let’s try to seek the gold in others and spread positive energy. And, let’s do it not only during Lent, but every day.

‘Indifference to our neighbour and to God also represents a real temptation for us Christians. Each year during Lent we need to hear once more the voice of the prophets who cry out and trouble our conscience.’
Pope Francis

What can we do to heighten the awareness of our surroundings and seek the gold in others rather than digging up the dirt?

  1. Avoid negative people! Years ago, whenever I approached people who were gossiping or spreading negativity, I walked away. I didn’t want their negativity to rub off on my positive attitude. I joked that I was allergic to them.
  2. Look for solutions! Negative people are never looking for solutions, never looking for ways to make things better. If they did they would have nothing to complain about and would have to find the next thing to complain about.
  3. Optimism is a happiness magnet! Finding positive people to associate with, people looking to build people up, find solutions, and interested in personal growth, will add to your happiness.
  4. Be the ‘Yes, but’…person. When people are spreading rumours about someone, I will often interrupt them with a ‘yes…but’, and then I will share a positive thought about the person being targeted.

‘That may be true, BUT when I was in the hospital, she was the first person to visit me.’ ‘Yes, BUT he really went out of his way to help get that project completed on time.’

You get the idea, right? Remember, if they are talking behind someone’s back when they aren’t there, they are probably also talking about you behind your back.

Let’s start right now, during Lent, to find the gold in others, to be optimistic and positive. Let’s shed the negative behaviour and avoid letting negative people steal our joy.

Let’s bring a new energy to all that we do and seek God’s favour not just during Lent but every day of our lives.


Adapted and edited from Tony Agnesi
‘Those who seek the good seek favour, but those who pursue evil will have evil come upon them.’ – Proverbs 11:27

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

Precious Lives, Precious Vocations

According to the World Health Organisation, Papua New Guinea has the highest road accident rate in the Pacific region.

This is partly because of the roads which in most cases are very poor. Many people travel in dangerously overcrowded and unsafe conditions in the back of lorries and pickup trucks. For these small trucks are cheaper to buy than a minibus.

The Good Shepherd Seminary in Banz also has a truck. At present the seminary has 35 students and 15 will join them this year. There are too many to fit in the back of the truck and in any case the pickup is on its last legs.

You cannot make savings and put people’s lives at risk in the process; they need our help for a minibus for the seminarians and the teaching staff. The new vehicle would be especially useful for taking groups of seminarians to do pastoral work in the more distant parishes. Vehicles are expensive in Papua New Guinea. We have promised them help for life is precious, as indeed are priestly vocations too.

This article can be found in Mirror 0118.

Faith and the Common Good

In presenting the story of the patriarchs and the righteous men and women of the Old Testament, the Letter to the Hebrews highlights an essential aspect of their faith. That faith is not only presented as a journey, but also as a process of building, the preparing of a place in which human beings can dwell together with one another.

The first builder was Noah who saved his family in the ark (Heb 11:7). Then comes Abraham, of whom it is said that by faith he dwelt in tents, as he looked forward to the city with firm foundations (cf. Heb 11:9-10).

With faith comes a new reliability, a new firmness, which God alone can give. If the man of faith finds support in the God of fidelity, the God who is Amen (cf. Is 65:16), and thus becomes firm himself, we can now also say that firmness of faith marks the city which God is preparing for mankind.

Faith reveals just how firm the bonds between people can be when God is present in their midst.

Faith does not merely grant interior firmness, a steadfast conviction on the part of the believer; it also sheds light on every human relationship because it is born of love and reflects God’s own love. The God who is himself reliable gives us a city which is reliable.

Precisely because it is linked to love (cf. Gal 5:6), the light of faith is concretely placed at the service of justice, law and peace.

Faith is born of an encounter with God’s primordial love, wherein the meaning and goodness of our life become evident; our life is illumined to the extent that it enters into the space opened by that love, to the extent that it becomes, in other words, a path and praxis leading to the fullness of love.

The light of faith is capable of enhancing the richness of human relations, their ability to endure, to be trustworthy, to enrich our life together.

Faith does not draw us away from the world or prove irrelevant to the concrete concerns of the men and women of our time.

Without a love which is trustworthy, nothing could truly keep men and women united. Human unity would be conceivable only on the basis of utility, on a calculus of conflicting interests or on fear, but not on the goodness of living together, not on the joy which the mere presence of others can give.

Faith makes us appreciate the architecture of human relationships because it grasps their ultimate foundation and definitive destiny in God, in his love, and thus sheds light on the art of building; as such it becomes a service to the common good.

Faith is truly a good for everyone; it is a common good. Its light does not simply brighten the interior of the Church, nor does it serve solely to build an eternal city in the hereafter; it helps us build our societies in such a way that they can journey towards a future of hope.

The Letter to the Hebrews offers an example in this regard when it names, among the men and women of faith, Samuel and David, whose faith enabled them to ‘administer justice’ (Heb 11:33).

This expression refers to their justice in governance, to that wisdom which brings peace to the people (cf. 1 Sam 12:3-5; 2 Sam 8:15).

The hands of faith are raised up to heaven, even as they go about building in charity a city based on relationships in which the love of God is laid as a foundation.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

Co-workers in the Kingdom of Love

In her ‘Prayer on growing older’ Saint Teresa of Avila says: ‘Lord protect me from gloomy saints. Keep me reasonably sweet, for a sour old person is one of the crowning works of the devil’.

The discalced Carmelite Sisters of Barquisimeto in Venezuela are not necessarily all saints, but old and sour they certainly are not – rather they are all loving and affectionate.

And yet these daughters of Saint Teresa do not have an easy life. Barquisimeto’s eleven Sisters also suffer from the poverty afflicting their once oil-rich country, which has been brought to its knees by political and economic mismanagement – and a social crisis bordering on civil war.

The worst thing for them is the lack of medical supplies, which two of the Sisters depend on for their lives. Many foodstuffs are largely unobtainable and even water is in short supply.

Moreover, they have no running water, and they cannot afford to bore a well in the convent grounds. Meanwhile, there is a growing climate of superstition and idolatry in the country, involving the theft of human organs and bones obtained through the desecration of graves.

To avoid this danger, the Sisters have had to remove the mortal remains of their deceased foundress and fellow Sisters from the public cemetery and laid them in a place of safety.

‘Through our prayers we are co-workers in the Kingdom of Love, even in this world’, writes their 37-year-old abbess, Mother Isabel. Five of the 11 Sisters are younger than her. Without outside aid they could not fulfil their vocation and mission of devoting their whole lives to God in prayer.

It is a similar story for the 32 Trappist nuns in Barquisimeto. Sister Lilian has already had two strokes and Sister Bernarda suffers from muscular dystrophy and high blood pressure. The others go without in order to pay for their medication, yet as Mother Paola writes, ‘This will still not be enough. Nevertheless, we continue to pray and work, with joy and hope in our hearts.’

Archbishop Antonio Lopez Castillo of Barquisimeto adds his own plea: ‘Please help. The Sisters are indispensable to the archdiocese. We need the prayers of these Sisters.’ 

ACN is determined to provide the Carmelite and Trappist Sisters in Barquisimeto the little they need to survive.

It is likewise a matter of survival for the Carmelite Sisters in Sebikotane, in the Archdiocese of Dakar in Senegal. Again, as Archbishop Benjamin Ndiaye assures us, their prayer is ‘an enormous support for the diocese, and especially for the seminary where Senegalese priests have been trained for generations’.

But the Sisters need a car, to transport the vegetables grown in their convent garden and the chickens they raise to the market in Dakar, 30 miles (50 km) away.

This is the main way that the Sisters, who come from Ghana, Sierra Leone, Togo, the Cape Verde Islands and Senegal support themselves.

The old car is now worn out by and costing them too much in repairs. We have promised them a new car.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

The Truth about Prayer: Light from Light

In the book that he considered his most important work, the Doctor of the Church Saint Alphonsus Liguori wrote something many people today might find hard to hear: The person who prays will most certainly gain Heaven. But the person who does not pray will likewise certainly be eternally lost.’

The book has the challenging title, ‘Is Prayer Necessary?’ The contemplative Sisters answer the question with their lives. For some Sisters their work is to pray for the Church, others serve God in a more active life. Prayer always has a social dimension – but social work without prayer redeems no one.

For the Poor Clares in Madagascar this is self-evident. They have five convents on the island, knowing that the social problems here cannot be resolved by work alone. ‘We want to fulfil the wonderful dream of saving many souls through the offering of our lives’, says Sister Laura. She is one of six Sisters living in the newest convent, which has just been founded.

Like three of the Sisters there – Chiara, Gloria and Celeste – Sister Laura comes from Sicily, the other two – Agnes and Francesca – are from Madagascar. From their convent they hope to light up the Diocese of Ambanja. It is called ‘Kintana Manazava’, which means something like the ‘Convent of Light from Light’.

They want this light to light up the darkness of people’s lives here, especially the lives of the women, who often find themselves left alone with their children – as there is little sense of family cohesion in Madagascar.

There are only a few schools, the illiteracy rate is high and even the religious life suffers from a lack of education, while across the island superstitious practices are widespread. Poverty and unemployment, prostitution and drugs are a bitter truth of daily life. Electricity and running water are a luxury, and many people have never even seen a car.

In order to light up this darkness, the Sisters begin with the light of faith, with prayer. One of the major concerns of their foundress was always to keep this balance between work and prayer, in which prayer must always take priority.

Rule No. 7 of the Rule of the Poor Clares says, ‘The Sisters must work with fidelity and dedication – but without suffocating the spirit of prayer and devotion. All other temporal things must serve HIM alone.’ For the Sisters it was a sign from heaven when one of the parishes gave them a statue of Our Lady to mark the opening of the convent. During the Marian months of May and October the statue of the Virgin of La Salette travels from house to house so that people can pray the Rosary before it.

As well as the six professed Sisters there are four novices and four young postulants living in the new convent. They devote themselves to prayer and religious formation. The land is paid for, but they do not have the funds to extend the house or build the chapel, which will also serve the Christians of the local community – especially the women. They want everyone to be able to draw strength from prayer. We have promised the sisters part-funding. The Sisters’ dream is a selfless and godly one; it will find fulfilment.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

Overcoming the Darkness - Lenten Appeal

In May 2017, Marawi a city of over 200,000 people in the South of the Philippines was overtaken by jihadists. They attacked the cathedral on May 23rd and kidnapped the parish priest who finally escaped 4 months later. The city was under siege for nearly five months and was destroyed.

In January 2017, under a heavy military escort, a small delegation including Aid to the Church in Need personnel was able to enter the perimeter originally named Ground zero. This was the first delegation to enter the area since the war and it included the Bishop of Marawi, Edwin de la Peña.

As he approached his church for the first time since 22nd May 2017, he later confessed that he felt his heart break. The first thing he did was to kneel in silence and in prayer in front of the devastated altar.

The bishop’s residence, just in front of the cathedral and where he had been living for the past 16 years, was also totally destroyed.

Bringing the Christian population back home and re-building peace in this land which has been so tortured by militant Islamic fundamentalists is now the Bishop’s top priority.

This good shepherd and his flock need our help. Helping him fulfil his mission is the mission of Aid to the Church in Need.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.

Bringing the Truth on the Road

There are many different forms of mission, but all involve service to others, all are expressions of love. As Father Werenfried wrote, this pastoral outreach is more than mere humanitarianism, ‘with money you can comfort people, but with love you can redeem them’. 

This is precisely the spirit in which Sister Franziska and Sister Helena of the Missionary Dominican Sisters of Jesus and Mary are working in the towns of Oryol and Bryansk, in Russia. In these towns, which are over 80 miles (130 km) apart:

  • They give catechetical instruction to children, young people and adults.
  • They also visit the sick and take Holy Communion to them; for the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass
  • They prepare the altar and play the organ;
  • They clean the presbytery and cook for the clergy; they conduct Liturgies of the Word and organise retreats;
  • They visit the elderly and laugh and pray with them.

For all this pastoral work they need a reliable car. They would also love to be able to visit the Sisters from their congregation in other parts of the country. But just recently it has been as though they are driving with the handbrake on.

Their car comes from Poland, which causes complications as it does not meet Russian environmental standards and can’t therefore be registered in Russia. So it has to be registered in Poland and, for legal reasons, return there every six months. Border crossings are expensive.

To cut a long story short the Sisters need to buy a Russian car. They need our help and we will help them.

This article can be found in Mirror 0218.