For Nothing Less than the Future of the World

For Saint Augustine, love is the “first  movement of the will”, the source of existence. In marriage and the family the reality of love comes to life. That is why the German poet Novalis says that “Children are love made visible”. For in them the mystery of creation is renewed.

This connection between Creator, love and human nature is universally valid. But it is not immediately obvious to people today; rather it must be learnt. And so, in the diocese of Bouar in Central Africa, Father Marcello Bartolomei has established a “School of Life and Love” to help young people prepare for and live the lifetime partnership of Christian marriage. It is proving a success. Faustine had problems. “My daughter became pregnant, and my husband blamed me and sent our daughter to live with her mother-in-law. It was only as a result of the marriage course that we got back on good terms and brought our daughter home.” Caroline had been on the pill. “While on the course, I realised what it meant; I stopped taking it and now I use natural methods. Now we live in harmony.” Tatiana rediscovered “her dignity as a housewife” while on the course, and as for Daniel, he is quite clear: “If I find a woman who can put up with me, then we’ll get married in church.” You are helping to fund these courses.

In the diocese of Natitingou in Benin, Bishop Pascal N’koue runs three-year training courses for couples, who will then pass on the teaching of the Church about sexuality, marriage and the family to others in their parishes. The courses are very popular. The couples are enthusiastic, he writes, and keen “to lay bare the lies with which the media are trying to divide our families”. You are helping this bishop with an annual contribution. And it is not only in Africa that you are helping to enlighten people, in the broadest sense, as to the truths of Catholic teaching on marriage and the family. In Latin America, Asia and Europe as well you are supporting programmes, courses and initiatives – faithful to the words of Blessed John Paul II, who said, “The future of the world passes by way of the family.”

This article can be found in Mirror 0312.

Three Lessons in Mercy We Can Learn from a Murderer

In 1947, twenty-year old Jim Townsend shot and killed his nineteen-year old wife Alice, who was six months pregnant with his twin children. He was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. After several years in prison and having established a well-earned reputation as an extremely violent criminal, Jim heard of an opportunity to be transferred to a lesser security prison. To increase his chances of being selected, Jim decided to fake a religious conversion with the hopes of reducing his sentence for good behaviour, and to pass himself off as a reformed inmate. He was transferred, and eventually his efforts led to him becoming the sacristan for the prison chaplain, Fr. Walsh.

However, Jim got More than he Bargained for.

Somewhere along the line, his fake conversion became real. He was released in 1967 after spending twenty years in prison. In 1970, he approached the Capuchin order, an offshoot of St. Francis’ Franciscans, and was greeted initially with skepticism. However, six years later in 1976, Jim made his final profession of vows, and became a religious brother. He died in June of 2011, at age 84, after having spent more than 40 years as a Capuchin brother, having inspired thousands with his real-life prodigal son conversion.2 Jim’s life can teach us three key lessons.


No One is Beyond God’s Mercy.

This true account should serve as a reminder that no one is beyond God’s mercy. Jim Townsend committed a horrific, indefensible crime. Yet, there is no sin that any of us has committed that cannot be washed away by the mercy of Jesus Christ, if we truly repent.

Do you believe this? Or, like many, do you believe it true for other people, but not for yourself?

While it is unlikely that anyone reading this has ever murdered anyone, we are all fallen creatures struggling with weakness and sin. Many times, our sins become like anchors around our necks, gradually weighing us down, and crushing the life out of us.  When you find this happening remember the words of Fr Larry Richards:

The Devil calls us to focus on ourselves and our past.

Jesus Christ calls us to focus on Himself and our future.

Have you ever noticed that before you commit a sin, the temptation in your head is: “Go ahead, it’s not that big of a deal – it won’t hurt anyone.” Then, immediately after the sin, the message changes to: “How could you do such a terrible thing, you piece of scum?” In other words, Satan gets us both coming and going. Before the sin, Satan minimises the seriousness of it, but afterwards, he plays it for all it’s worth. The truth is usually somewhere in the middle.

Do you find you are unable to forgive yourself for your sins? Do you constantly look back and beat yourself up for your past behaviour? These thoughts are not from God. When we do this, we are focusing on ourselves and the past. While it is healthy to be sorry and to have contrition for our wrongs, discouragement and despair are tools of the Devil designed to further separate us from God.


God’s Mercy in the Sacrament of Reconciliation Heals the Most Hardened Heart.

As part of Jim Townsend’s strategy for rebuilding his reputation, he began to go to Confession on a weekly basis with Fr. Walsh. However, Jim made a mockery of the sacrament by deliberately making up outrageous sins as part of his weekly confession. He did not realise that Fr. Walsh saw right through the charade.

One day, Jim was anxious to see what Fr. Walsh had been reporting about his behaviour. He picked the lock to Father Walsh’s filing cabinet and read through his reports. What he read stunned him and he prayed.

O, Lord God, I am so sorry. But then, are all these great things he is saying about me really true? I have to sit down. My legs are shaking – they are nothing under me. Nobody ever said stuff like this about me – ever. Father is really my brother and father. Oh, why did I do this? How can I look Father in the eye?

Despite Jim’s many problems, Fr. Walsh was still able to see some good in him. Mother Teresa never stopped telling us that we should see Jesus Christ in everyone. This is a difficult task, especially with people who have committed evil acts. But, God never gives up on any of us, no matter how far down the wrong path we have gone. If we end up in Hell, it will be because we chose to go there, and ignored God’s call to come back to Him.

Sometimes we are afraid or ashamed to confess our sins. This is another weapon of the Devil – he sows doubts in our hearts about the kindness and mercy of Christ.

Sometimes we make excuses and question why we should have to confess our sins to a man. The answer is found in the gospel of John, chapter 20, verses 21-23:

Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.”

Jesus gives the apostles (and their successors, today’s bishops and priests) the power to forgive sins. The priest is to act In Persona Christi, in the person of Christ. Note carefully the last verse. How can a priest forgive sins, unless he hears them? Jesus Christ knew that we would need this sacrament – there is something very healing about being able to go and tell another your deepest secrets, without fear of judgement, to know absolutely that you have been forgiven. Verse 23 guarantees it. Even though it can be a little scary, it is also very consoling to humbly recognise your faults and take them to the Divine Physician in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.

Certainly I was nervous when I made my very first confession. I had 30 years worth of sins to confess! But, I have found this sacrament to be a beautiful experience, and I  have benefited from it greatly.


How Long has it been Since Your Last Confession?

As Catholics, we are required to confess our mortal sins at least once a year, but if you study the lives of the saints, you will see they had a devotion to this sacrament, and many spiritual directors suggest receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation at least once a month, regardless of whether we have committed serious sin or not.

If you have sin weighing on your heart, and you have not been to Confession, I encourage you to go and receive the Mercy of Jesus. Take your sickness to the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and let Him heal you. He waits for you.

Jim Townsend’s life was changed when he realised that Someone really loved him, Someone would not give up on him, God did not give up on Jim. God does not give up on any of us.

Sean Widmer

1 Sean Widmer is a Catholic Convert, catechist and blogger.
2 His complete story is recounted in Paul F. Everett, ‘The Prisoner: An Invitation to Hope’ Paulist Press, New Jersey, 2005, 193 pp.

This article can be found in Mirror 0312.

Christ’s solidarity with the 'Untouchables'

Christians in India celebrated Dalit Liberation Sunday on the 11th December last by renewing their commitment to those of Dalit origin who still suffer from the traditional practice of untouchability.

In traditional Hindu thinking, Dalits are not quite human: they are denied the right to enter the temple, read, or eat with members of other castes. Moreover a person who touches a Dalit must immediately purify himself. Sadly as was pointed out by one Christian Missionary: “When it comes to social life, they are untouchable. For rape however they are touchable.”

Within the traditional Hindu mindset, to be Dalit is much worse than being poor. No matter how much education or wealth a Dalit acquires she or he will always remain polluted and a shame on the face of the earth. In many respects Dalits are like biblical lepers, except that while lepers are cured in the bible, within mainstream Indian culture, Dalits cannot be healed.

Notwithstanding the fact that India’s economy is large, fast growing and in many sectors highly competitive, poverty is widespread. India in fact has a dual economy on the one hand, modern technological and fast-paced, on the other, traditional, agrarian and poorly educated.

More than 40% of the Indian population are living below the poverty line. According to World Bank estimates, one third of the entire world’s poor live in India. Dalits accounting for somewhat over 15% of the total Indian population (between 150 and 160 million people) are numbered amongst the poorest of these poor.

Dalit Liberation Sunday is celebrated on the Sunday nearest to International Human Rights Day, Dec. 10. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India in association with the National Council of Churches in India strongly supports this annual celebration.

In a statement released by the Catholic bishops to mark Dalit Liberation Sunday 2011, note was made that “Indian society is still under the grip of caste culture that perpetuates ethos, attitudes, structures of inequality and dehumanizing untouchable practices.”  

“Contrary to the Gospel vision of Christ, the ‘caste mentality’ violates the God-given dignity and equality of the human person. Human dignity and respect are due to every human person and any denial of this is a sin against God and a disservice to humanity.”

A ‘confident, strong and vibrant’ Catholic Church in India is actively engaged in trying to transform a dominant culture which seeks to deny millions of people of their God-given dignity which is the fundamental basis of all human rights.

Article is an amended version of a Zenit News Agency article.

This article can be found in Mirror 0212.

The marvel of Samir’s homecoming - Pakistan

The fact that Samir is still alive is, in itself, a miracle. Never before in Pakistan has an abducted child been returned to his family. Just a week after his homecoming Samir made his First Holy Communion.

More than anything, nine-year-old Samir loves playing with his kite. He’s always flying it on the road outside the Catholic Cathedral in Lahore. That is what he was doing on that fateful 23 October. But on that day his parents waited for him to return home in vain. A security camera, that had been installed to protect the cathedral, showed him being abducted by a bearded, white-robed man. His parents were beside themselves, for Samir’s little sister had already been killed in an earlier bomb attack on the cathedral. The whole parish prayed fervently for a miracle, but they all knew that children abducted like this are taken to Afghanistan to be used as suicide bombers. Either that, or their limbs are hacked off so that they can be used to extort money by the Mafia. Not one such victim has ever returned alive. But Father Andrew Nisari believes in miracles. He kept encouraging the parents, saying “Your son will return!”

Samir himself can remember only the sponge that was held over his nose. Then everything went black. Ten days later he found himself with his abductor beside the River Indus, somewhere in the region of Peshawar on the frontier with Afghanistan. “Let’s just see how deep the water is,” the man said to him. “I’m afraid; I don’t want to die,” the youngster replied. “No, I’ll hold your hand”, said the kidnapper. Then, as Samir continued to struggle, the man simply threw him into the water and made off. Father Andrew believes that his abductor just wanted to get rid of the boy, since the case had been publicised on television and the business was getting too dangerous for the man. But little Samir did not drown. He was able to cling to some bamboo stems and drag himself back onto dry land. Then he ran and ran. On a house in Peshawar he saw a poster with a picture of Mariamabad, the Pakistani Marian shrine. “Please take me there, to those people”, he said to a Muslim mullah, who had stopped to help him. Around midnight that night the phone rang at Samir’s family home. Soon they were all beside themselves with joy. That same night his father set out to fetch his son from Peshawar. As they were still on their way home, Samir telephoned Father Andrew. “What about my First Holy Communion?”, he asked him.

The next day Samir arrived home. The whole parish turned out to meet him and everyone was in tears, even Father Andrew. A week later Samir made his First Holy Communion. This year he will once again be able to join the parish pilgrimage to Mariamabad to sing Our Lady’s praises. Last year everyone had missed the sound of his voice.

Eva-Maria Kolmann

This article can be found in Mirror 0212.

Winning friends for Christ – in Tunisia

Christians in Tunisia are a tiny minority, and their situation is precarious. There are fears about where the country, or society, is heading under the current Islamist dominance.

It’s the old story of the mustard seed. They have to remain discreet and yet effective. They do this by their example, bearing witness to the Good News by the testimony of their lives, building bridges between cultures, welcoming others with open arms and showing them that Christ is both their friend and their hope – for only in this way can the non-Christians come to know the God of love. Their archbishop has encouraged this in his pastoral letter, but to do this they also need places to meet. They need them for the parishes themselves, for special occasions, for pastoral work. We are helping the archbishop and his faithful co-workers by part-funding the construction of a multipurpose hall in the pastoral centre. It will be a place of the Good News.

This article can be found in Mirror 0212.

May My Great God Give Them Strength

In the countries of the post-Soviet era the scars of communism run deep in many souls. In those countries where Christians were always a tiny minority it is particularly difficult for Christians to live their faith in everyday life as well.

In Kazakhstan there is a strong Muslim element in the population. In the diocese of the Holy Trinity in Almaty there are 16 Religious Sisters and two Religious Brothers. They provide a very thorough teaching to the children and young people in their care. For the only protection against the prejudices of the world around them lies in sound arguments and prayer. 10-year-old Anja spent two years with the Sisters, preparing for her First Holy Communion. “When the day finally came, and Jesus was within me, I understood that I was following in the footsteps of Mary. In my First Confession it was hard for me to acknowledge my sins, for I felt ashamed. But I knew that it was necessary, so that Jesus could enter into a pure heart. And when I received him, my God, I had a thousand things to ask him.”

Tolik, who is 12, lives alone with his mother. Ever since the summer camp with the parish he has been attending Mass regularly. “I am happy, now that I am an altar server. Since I began to pray, I have also taught my mother one or two prayers. She says I have changed since I started going to church, and that I am more obedient now.” But without our financial support the Sisters cannot continue their teaching work, nor can the brothers organise the summer camps. We have promised them to help.

On the other side of the world, in Bolivia and Peru, the Little Sisters of the Helpless and Elderly care for lonely old people in special homes. Pedro Oliver, who is 86, is so happy and thankful for this that he ends his letter with the words “Long live the old people’s home!” 89-year-old Isaac, a former singer, became a widower at an early age, and then lost his son, who died of cancer. The Sisters took him in, and very soon he was singing again. “I love going to the chapel and praying to my great God, as I always call him, and I pray for the Sisters too, asking my great God to give them strength to stay faithful to the path they have chosen.” He signs his letter “Isaac, taken into the home by the Little Sisters of the Helpless and Elderly”.

Anibal Ovidio, who is 86, was a craftsman and still helps wherever he can. He also looks after the sacristy and is happy to take on any task. His “only sorrow” is “the ingratitude of my children – but then maybe I wasn’t such a good father either”. But he tells the Sisters they must not be sad when he dies, although for him it will be hard enough to have to leave this place of peace one day, he says. The Sisters’ request is modest indeed. Altogether, in these two countries, there are 243 Sisters working in such homes, the last earthly home for many aged and lonely people. Ours could be the arms through which God reaches out to help them. It is up to us.

This article can be found in Mirror 0112.

God Sees Things Differently

The “unworldliness” of which Pope Benedict has spoken is at the same time a personal choice. It takes shape in the response to the quiet call of God. Sister Marie Catherine Kingbo was one of those who heard and responded.

Even as a child she had always been more inclined to pray with a listening heart rather than by speaking. At the age of 25, in Dakar, Senegal, she made her temporary vows, and at the age of 32 her final vows. Later she became the Superior of the congregation of the Daughters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

Later still she was elected president of the Association of Religious Superiors for the region of West Africa. Then in Paris, after hearing a lecture on Christianity and Islam, she felt Our Lord calling her to something new: “You know my face; make it known among the Muslims”. The words were engraved on her heart; she founded the congregation of the Handmaids of Christ and asked the Bishop of Maradi, in Niger to find a home for her in his diocese. It is the only home-grown congregation in Maradi. Very soon the first postulant was knocking at the door of the new congregation. Today there are eight of them, and Sister Marie is seeking our help for the formation of her novices.

There are some 40,000 Catholics living in Niger today, in an environment dominated by Islamand a proliferation of sects. But this new congregation is already highly regarded, because these young women bear shining witness, helping and teaching with selfless devotion – the essence of unworldliness. St Therese of Avila put it like this, “How much better the world would be if there were no chasing after fame and money. Then I am sure the world would be back in good order.”

But for now we cannot dispense entirely with money. In the convent of Our Lady of the Angels run near Canelones in Uruguay, the 14 Contemplative Sisters of the Poor Clares have to endure freezing temperatures. Most of them are aged over 80 and some are even over 90, and the winters are cold in these mountains. The little they earn by the work of their own hands is not enough to pay for the necessary repairs in a convent that was never really even finished, let alone to pay for the heating. But they cannot and will not cut back on their prayers. For this is their most important contribution to the life of the Church in this highly secularised country. We have promised them our help.

This article can be found in Mirror 0112.