A reflection by Fr. Ron MacDonell, SFM, at the Scarboro Missions Thanksgiving Mass, November 1, 2015, based on Revelation 7.2-4,9-14; 1 John 3.1-3; and Matthew 5.1-12a
Today we celebrate All Saints Day. Originally, the feast was a remembrance of martyrs, Christians those who had “washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb,” as the reading from Revelation states. By the 9th century, the feast included non-martyrs and was given this date, November 1, to counter a pagan feast.
What, or who, is a saint? I’ve thought a lot about this in the past few years. On my visits to Brazil, I’ve been involved in the translation of the Children’s Bible into the language of the Makushi people. I discovered that there is no word for “saint” or for “holy” in their language. The Makushi word morî means “good.” Perhaps we could translate “saint” as someone who is “very good,” morî pu’kuru. The Makushi people certainly remember respected elders who have died and honour them for their wisdom.
I turned to the Catechism of our Church for a definition of a saint. It states: “By canonizing some of the faithful, i.e., by solemnly proclaiming that they practiced heroic virtue and lived in fidelity to God’s grace, the Church recognizes the power of the Spirit of holiness within her and sustains the hope of believers by proposing the saints to them as models and intercessors.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 828)
A saint, then, is a woman or man who practices “heroic virtue” and lives “fidelity to God’s grace.” How is this done? Jesus teaches how, in the new commandments called the Beatitudes. The ten commandments of Moses are quantitative: we can measure the number of times we disobey them. The Beatitudes of Jesus are qualitative: they are immeasurable because we can always become poorer in spirit, purer in heart, more merciful, thirstier for justice. Jesus calls us to an eternal deepening of these virtues.
Saint Therese of Lisieux and Saint Francis Xavier
Saints are models for us to imitate and friends who intercede for us. We all have our favourite saints. We can think of the two patron saints of mission—St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Francis Xavier. St. Therese, a French Carmelite nun, died of tuberculosis in 1897 at 24 years of age. She was heroic in following the “the little way” of practicing kindness in daily life. She lived in the now, and famously said, “We only have today.” St. Francis Xavier was a founder of the Jesuits and a missionary who laboured in Asia, especially India and Japan. He died of a fever in 1552 at 46 on the island of Shangchuan while waiting for a boat to take him to mainland China. St. Francis lived heroic virtue by preaching God’s word in other lands. These two rather contrasting lives of holiness are models for us, models of fervent prayer and of missionary risk.
We can look to people in our lives for examples of sainthood, right in our own Scarboro family. I wish to speak about these two men whose photos are here in the middle of the chapel: Fr. Jim McGuire and Fr. Art MacKinnon.
When I remember Fr. Jim, I think of the beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.” We know Jim’s quiet way, his gentleness, his hopeful attitude and his belief in a more just world. He was well-read and kept up with current events. He had a wonderful way of raising his hands when he talked of world events, as though trying to pull the world into his embrace. Jim spent many years of service in the Philippines, in Canada in administration, and in Malawi, where he stayed until his back pain was so severe he had to return to Canada at the age of 80. He is lovingly remembered by all whose lives he touched. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.”
Fr. Art MacKinnon
Today we also remember Fr. Art MacKinnon, shot dead 50 years ago in the Dominican Republic. Last June, a number of Scarboro missioners joined the MacKinnon Clan and the local church in New Waterford on Cape Breton Island to honour Fr. Art.
The Beatitude that best speaks of Fr. Art is “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.” His thirst for justice was so strong that Fr. Art gave his very life at age 33. Jesus says, “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15.13). Fr. Art gave his life on behalf of service to the poor and the oppressed.
Ordained in 1959, Fr. Art was sent to the Dominican Republic to join other Scarboro priests there. The situation was not peaceful. For 30 years, from 1931 to 1961, the country was ruled by the dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Trujillo took over half of the country’s farmland and created monopolies of most of the industries, such as sugar cane, petroleum, rice, and coffee. He also created a network of police and spies to report anyone speaking against his regime. In 1961, Trujillo was killed by rebels in a car chase. After his death, factions vied for power. Those on the side of Trujillo wanted to continue his regime, but the people wanted democracy and free elections. Civil war broke out. A few months before Fr. Art’s death, in April 1965, more than 12,000 US marines landed on the island to back a new dictator. All opposition was persecuted.
It was in this turmoil that Fr. Art lived and served the people of Monte Plata. He spoke out in his homilies against the oppression. Military and police would be listening to his sermons. Just imagine if there were police standing at the chapel doors at Mass, noting everything that was said and writing down your names. The people were living with that sort of tension.
During those months, 37 young people from his parish were jailed. Fr. Art denounced the arrests publicly, visited the youth in jail, and—along with their parents—pleaded for their release. They were eventually released, although some were rearrested. It was his prophetic witness that marked Fr. Art as a target. Like Jesus, he took the side of the poor and the oppressed, and spoke out against injustice.
On the evening of June 22, 1965, Fr. Art MacKinnon received a call to attend a sick person. Despite the dangerous times, he went. Like Jesus, he was ever attentive to those who suffered. He was later found dead, along with two police, presumably his killers, also dead. What was going through Fr. Art’s mind and heart as he drove through the tropical heat that night? Did he feel that death was near, that God was calling him?
In the 1st reading from Revelation, we hear of the great ordeal: “These are they who have come out of the great ordeal; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.” The great ordeal for Jesus was the agony in the garden, and his passion and crucifixion, and then his resurrection to new life. The great ordeal for early Christians was facing death by the Roman Empire for following Jesus. The great ordeal for Fr. Art was to stand with the people of the Dominican Republic in their situation of military oppression. He gave his life because he loved the people, because he loved God, because God is love. “Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you…on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven.”
Blessed Oscar Romero and Sr. Dorothy Stang
There are many martyrs throughout the world. Blessed Oscar Romero was assassinated in 1980 for taking the side of the poor against powerful forces in El Salvador. He was beatified this year. In 2005, American Sr. Dorothy Stang was murdered in Brazil because of her stand with the people and the creation of an ecological reserve in the Amazon jungle. Prophets like Sr. Dorothy anticipate Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato Si, which speaks of the need to defend our common home, the Earth. We have only to listen to the news or go on the Internet to hear of the many violent social storms happening across our world, particularly in Syria.
Recently, Scarboro Missions has been undergoing a “great ordeal.” Many of you know from our communications that our numbers have diminished, that we have decided to sell our central house and participate in a housing project for seniors from other religious communities, that we are discerning what ministries we can continue as our legacy. We are living through the Paschal Mystery of death and resurrection. We thank all of you, our friends and benefactors, for your prayers and support. We ask you to remember us as we discern our future and as we prepare for the 100th anniversary of our founding in 2018.
What is your great ordeal? How is God asking each of us to live heroic virtue, to follow Jesus faithfully and intensely? We may not be called to the dramatic privilege of martyrdom like Fr. Art. “Martyr” means “witness” and most are called to witness Jesus in our daily lives, in small ways, with patience and gentleness, like St. Therese did. And like Fr. Jim did.
In our Creed, we proclaim that “we believe in the communion of saints.” We believe that we are united with all who have gone before us, like Fr. Jim McGuire, Fr. Art MacKinnon, and Fr. Clair Yaeck who died on this day in 1996. We believe that we too can become saints by choosing to follow Jesus.
Often a particular Beatitude touches our hearts and gives us courage on life’s journey. What Beatitude speaks most to you? Pope Francis has called for a Year of Mercy, starting next month on December 8, 2015, and ending on November 20, 2016. “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy.” Pope Francis is inviting us to live this Beatitude, to receive and feel God’s mercy in our own lives, and to be merciful and understanding of our sisters and brothers, both near and far. By God’s grace and mercy, we too may be worthy of entering the communion of saints.