By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
Whew! The first eight days of October 2016, have come and gone! And what a week it was! There were several events, observances, festivals, happenings, meetings at every possible level; it was a week of terrible violence, of inhuman acts; it was pain and suffering for millions the world over, caused by tragedies both man-made and so-called ‘nature’-made. Yet it was a week of hope, of new initiatives, greater commitments. As one looks back these eight days, one can sync the week into eight key – words which are not only rich in meaning but also provide a direction for us today.
At the heart of every society is family. Today the family as an institution and the values that were sacrosanct in every family, are literally under siege. Pope Francis reminded the world of this during his visit to Georgia. Another wave of migrants drowned in the high seas, in their attempt to flee war and persecution. Families torn asunder for no fault of their own. ‘Ageism’, is gradually permeating into families; the elders who brought us up, become a burden and are not wanted – a grim reminder from the ‘International Day of the Elderly’. ‘World Habitat Day’ underscored the reality of the millions of families without a proper shelter, who are homeless. The Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary was yet another call that “a familythat prays together, stays together.” The parents (who are Saints today) of St Teresa of Liseux played a major role in nurturing her faith. The many festivals, religious and cultural, which we have just celebrated, will hopefully help in family bonding.There is no doubt at all, that FAMILY is the way.
We need to talk with one another with respect; to listen to the other point of view. Truth is a non-negotiable; though perceptions differ, one often has to give in for a greater good. The Syrian conflict entered a disastrous phase with the beak-down of the cease-fire agreement; the UN action on Syria was vetoed five times on one day! In Colombia, the much awaited peace deal with the FARC was rejected by a narrow margin in a shock referendum. It was a deal that took full four years of very intense dialogue. St. Francis of Assisi was a great communicator, he showed world how important it was to dialogue with ‘Brother Sun’ and ‘Sister Moon’, with the whole of creation, with those who mattered the most very specially the poor and the excluded. The Apostolic pilgrimage of Pope Francis to Georgia and Azerbaijan, was clearly an effort to enhance dialogue with the Orthodox Church and with other faiths. Debates may be good, for diverse opinions and points of view. For greater understanding, DIALOGUE is the way.
For St Ignatius of Loyola ‘spiritual discernment’ was the keystone in his ‘Exercises’. Jesuits numbering 212, from all over the world, have gathered in Rome for a historic 36th General Congregation. They are listening to the promptings of the Holy Spirit, discerning the signs of the times, responding to the Universal Call and striving for the ‘Magis’. Several major decisions for the journey ahead will be arrived at, but not without due discernment. To ‘discern’, is certainly not the prerogative of the Jesuits. It is today an essential dimension prior to any major decision; it involves weighing the pros and cons in as objective a way as possible. To have the openness to discern is fundamental in today’s world. The recent posturing and utterances by several so-called ‘world leaders’ including the elected President of the Philippines or one of the US Presidential nominees clearly proves that the word ‘discern’ is not part of their lexicology. To have the courage to DISCERN is the way.
The Paris agreement on Climate Change will finally come into force in a few days from now, after the European Union ratified the Agreement marking the achievement of the required two thresholds (55 Countries representing 55% of the GHG emissions). A few days earlier India signed the agreement too. It is certainly not in the best interests of the future of mankind to disregard the role of humankind in ‘Climate Change’ the world over. ‘Hurricane Matthew’ has left behind it a trail of death and destruction in Haiti, Cuba, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and the Bahamas; parts of the United States like North and South Carolina and Florida were also affected. Gujarat began its traditional nine nights (Navratri) of revelry: of song and dance propitiating a Deity.
This year unseasonal rains proved to be a damp squib on the celebrations for many days. In the context of the ‘Paris Agreement’ there has been a renewed enthusiasm on ‘Laudato Si’ the path-breaking Encyclical of Pope Francis “on care for our common home”. The first two words ‘Laudato Si’ (meaning ‘Praise be to You’), is taken from the beautiful Canticle of St Francis of Assisi which “reminds us that our common home is like a sister with whom we share our life and a beautiful mother who opens her arms to embrace us.” Caring for the CLIMATE is the way!
Continuity is essential but change is inevitable. An impact is naturally felt when there is a change in visionary top leadership. Fr Adolfo Nicolas stepped down as Superior General of the Society of Jesus after more than nine years at the helm. In a moving thanksgiving speech to Fr. Nicolas, Fr. Federico Lombardi, one of the Assistant Generals said among other things that, “Fr Nicolas has inspired the religious commitment of the Jesuits and reminded them throughout his time as the head of the Society of Jesus of the universal perspective of the Jesuit mission, which requires looking beyond the borders of provinces or countries.” The Jesuits now look for a worthy successor to Fr Nicolas. The Secretary General of the United Nations, Ban-Ki Moon also said good bye.
It is not easy to be in such a position today. Inspite of all efforts, one can easily be relegated to becoming a ‘lame duck’ even in such a position. His successor is Antonio Guterres, the former Prime Minister of Portugal and the UN’s High Commissioner for Refugees from 2005-2015. In the latter responsibility, he played a stellar role in responding to the worst humanitarian crisis in recent times. Whether he will be able to do something constructive for the millions of refugees today or ensure the implementation of the ‘Paris Agreement’, is left to be seen. Changes take place all the time in our lives. Being prepared for CHANGE, is the way.
The Sabbath between ‘Rosh Hashanah’ and ‘Yom Kippur’ is the ‘Shabbat Shuvah’. It signifies ‘return’, ‘repentance’, ‘mercy- a deep and sincere preparation for the ‘Day of Atonement’ –the holiest day of the year in Judaism. ‘Rosh Hashanah’, a few days earlier was the beginning of the Jewish New Year. It is not without significance that this New Year almost coincides with the Islamic New Year which began on the first day of this month of ‘Muharram’. It is the second holiest month for the Muslims- with a focus on fasting, mourning and repentance, depending on whether you are a Sunni or Shia Muslim. These festivals should surely be a time for renewal in mercy and compassion.
Yes, ‘Mercy’ is another word for ‘compassion’; so when Mother Teresa received the approval for her Congregation sixty-six years ago , she emphatically stated that the primary aim of her Missionaries of Charity ,“was to care for the hungry, the naked, the homeless, the crippled, the blind, the lepers, all those people who feel unwanted, unloved, uncared for throughout society, people that have become a burden to the society and are shunned by everyone.” These acts of Mercy gain new meaning in this ‘Year of Mercy’. The ‘Mercy in Motion’ Campaign of the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in the context of the educational initiatives for refugee children also gained prominence these days with some popular yet significant concerts. Substantial acts of MERCY, is the way!
There cannot be real human progress if there is no unity. The 19th SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) which was scheduled to be held in Pakistan next month is indefinitely postponed. There may be good reason for this but there are also fears that SAARC may break –up which will lead to the escalation of tensions in the Region. Collaborative ventures at every possible level is the need of the hour. Unfortunately, we have witnessed a high degree of unhealthy competition and one-upmanship games in the recent past. There was a heartwarming and historic event, when Anglicans and Catholics, gathered in Rome to celebrate the golden jubilee of the very first meeting of a Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury, which took place in 1966.The very significant signs of greater unity shown by the Archbishop Justin Welby, head of the Anglican Communion and Pope Francis, will surely go a long way, in deepening the bonds between two major denominations of Christianity. It was also symbolic that when this evening Rev. Cesar Essayan was consecrated Bishop of head of the Latin Church of Beirut, Patriarchs and Bishops of several other rites and denominations were present and were involved in the meaningful ceremony! UNITY is obviously the way!
In a fitting tribute to Mahatma Gandhi, the United Nations has declared his birth Anniversary as the ‘International Day of Non-Violence’. Gandhi propagated a twin doctrine for peace, ‘ahimsa’ (non-violence) and ‘satyagraha’ (the force of truth). The war –mongers of today’s world, spare scant attention to these two essentials. Violence anywhere on any one should be shunned. Both India and Pakistan have upped their ante- in positions and posturing that does not augur well for the region. In Congo and in South Sudan, in Yemen and elsewhere millions continued to be affected by war. In Aleppo and in other parts of Syria, bombings continued indiscriminately, with a heavy toll on human life. It was also symbolic that the Colombian President, Juan Manuel Santos has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2016, for his indefatigable role in bringing to an end the fifty-year old civil war in Colombia. St Francis of Assisi gave the world a fitting prayer, “Lord make me achannel of your peace”. We need to be Angels of Peace, guarding and promoting it. PEACE for all, is the only way!
Some years ago the Beatles popularized a love song ‘Eight Days a Week’ – the lyrics went beyond the narrow confines of the ‘seven’ days. This reflection is somewhat done similar. The first eight days of October were really special in more ways than one. The events were cross- cutting: many or most of them could have figured easily in many more of the above words. Like a scrabble game, there could have been many more words too. I realize and understand that. This reflection also brings into play the multiple identitiesI belong to and identify with: human being, world citizen, Indian, Christian, Catholic, Jesuit, from Gujarat, working in the Middle East, with refugees, through JRS etc., so naturally, the references, the terminology, the nuances belong to all of them!
Yes, a very special October Week: Eight Days and Eight Ways to help make our world a better place!
*Indian Jesuit priest and a human rights activist, currently based in Lebanon and engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications