Saturday, February 02, 2008

The Beatitudes

This weekend I will be sharing a reflection on the readings at Masses at St. Thomas Aquinas Church and Catholic Student Center in Ames, Iowa. Here are my notes.

Zephaniah 2:3; 3:12-13
1 Corinthians 1:26-31
Matthew 5: 1-12

I bring you greetings of God’s love from Honduras.

My name is John Donaghy. Many of you know me but each year St. Thomas is blessed by hundreds of new faces. I served St. Thomas for almost 24 years as a campus ministry and in the parish’s justice and peace ministry.

Since June 2006 I have served as a lay missionary with the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán in southwestern Honduras. One of my responsibilities is to help facilitate the development of a relationship between St. Thomas and the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán. Bishop Luis Alfonso Santos has asked me to help in the campus ministry at the local branch of the Catholic University of Honduras; I also help with a rural parish, Dulce Nombre de Maria, and also help several small projects in Santa Rosa, a town of about 35,000.

Santa Rosa de Copán is a poor diocese in the third poorest country in Latin America, where about 64% of the people live with less than two dollars a day. In this mountainous area with 1 million Catholics, most of the people eke out their existence farming corn and beans, often on marginal land. The diocese has about 50 priests serving these million Catholics, and the bishop struggles to find funds for his seminarians and to provide for the priest medical insurance.

But the people are not left without nourishment in their faith: there are hundreds of people involved in ministries in the church. Many people with less than six years of schooling evangelize their communities. In the rural parish where I help there are over 200 catechists and almost all of the villages have local people who serve on pastoral teams and lead celebrations of the Word on Sundays. There are also 230 base communities in the parish – weekly meetings of people to share the Word of God in small groups.

These people with their faith and their commitment challenge us. As Paul wrote to the
Corinthians, I have seen that
“God has chosen the foolish of the world to shame the wise,
and God has chosen the weak of the world to shame the strong,
and God chose the lowly and despised of the world,
those who count for nothing…”

I would like to suggest that they can teach us what the Beatitudes mean.

A few years ago there was a major controversy in this country about the display of the ten commandments in public places. At least one person, though, wondered why no one ever wanted to post the Beatitudes in our courthouses and schools.

Think about it. The Ten Commandments were given to Moses by the Lord on Mount Sinai. But Jesus, the Lord himself, gave the beatitudes to his disciples on a mountain in Galilee. He wanted to tell them what the Kingdom of God looks like. He challenged them to live the beatitudes, to live the kingdom of Heaven. It is not insignificant that the first and the eighth beatitudes tell us that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor in spirit and those who are persecuted for the sake of justice.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. The Lord is speaking about he poor. I have heard two very provocative renderings of this beatitude: blessed are those who have the spirit of the poor – or, blessed are the poor with spirit, the poor who are infused with the Spirit of God – a spirit of receptiveness to God’s Word and to God’s people. I think of the woman who once a month walks three hours to get to the parish council meeting in the parish of Dulce Nombre de María., or the man who walks four hours. They have the spirit not only to walk those six hours but to work in their communities to bring to them the light of God’s kingdom. Theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the sake of justice, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven. I think of Bishop Santos. he speaks out forthrightly against corruption and against the systems that keep people poor. He hopes to set up programs to help the poor, including a lunch program for street kids and other poor kids in the town of Santa Rosa. He has spoken out very courageously against open pit mining which extracts gold to the enrichment of the owners, which damages the environment and pays a bare 1% in taxes. For his outspokenness the bishop has been defamed and has received death threats. Persecuted, the kingdom of heaven is his.

Blessed are the merciful. I think of three Spanish Franciscan sisters who live on the street where I live. They help in a kindergarten in a poor neighborhood and have invited me to come and help once a week; they work with a school program for children with special needs; they teach reading and math to illiterate prisoners and have helped to set up a carpentry shop in the regional jail. Sor Inez, under 5 feet tall and in her seventies, works with a very poor neighborhood in the city and hopes to find enough funds to help them build a community center so they have a place where they can have workshops for parents, literacy programs for mothers, play and educational programs for kids. They are the merciful.

Blessed are the pure in heart. I believe that Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher, wrote that “purity of heart is to will one thing.” I think of Father Fausto Milla, an 80 year old Honduran priest who celebrates Sunday Mass in the chapel near my home in Santa Rosa. He is a man of deep piety but also a prophet who had to leave Honduras for several years in the 1980s after he was jailed for his advocacy for the poor. In exile in Mexico he learned about natural medicine and the importance of a healthy diet. And so while proclaiming the need to pray he also preaches about the need for justice for the poor. He also urges people to give up pop and chips for a healthy diet. He is among the pure of heart.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied. Hunger and thirst for righteousness – hungering that people are right with God and right with their neighbors, thirsting that people are justified in the face of God and are treated justly. For the word used in this beatitude for righteousness can also be translated as justice. For love of God and love of neighbor cannot be separated. As Pope Benedict wrote in his encyclical Deus Caritas Est – God is Love,
If I have no contact whatsoever with God in my life, then I cannot see in the other anything more than the other, and I am incapable of seeing in him the image of God. But if in my life I fail completely to heed others, solely out of a desire to be “devout” and to perform my “religious duties”, then my relationship with God will also grow arid. It becomes merely “proper”, but loveless. Only my readiness to encounter my neighbor and to show him love makes me sensitive to God as well.
(Pope Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est, ¶18)
Here I think of Father Efraín Romero, the pastor of Dulce Nombre de María. He has been in the parish less than a year but he has great dreams for the parish and is helping the parish council and the many people involved in the parish work together to respond to the spiritual and material needs of the people in the parish. The parish will be working in several agricultural projects this year to help the people get enough to eat. There is a training program for 77 people in family gardening and natural medicine. he and I have also been talking about a project to help people learn to build silos to store basic grains – corn and bean – so that people can store what they need for the year and don’t have to sell their crops at low prices only to have to buy corn and beans at inflated prices when their food supply runs out. He also is initiating an ambitious program in religious education for the parish, providing training for the more than 200 catechists and getting books for the nearly 3000 children in the first four levels of the religious education classes in the rural villages. He truly has a deep desire to help the people grow in their faith in God and also live dignified lives. He hungers and thirst for justice and righteousness, in all their dimensions. And he will be satisfied.

And in a few ways this hunger is beginning to be filled. Money which has been donated from the parish and many individuals was used to buy the books for the catechists. And I pray that your generosity may continue to help meet the needs of the parish of Dulce Nombre de María and the diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán.

I have also heard how the generosity of many in St. Thomas is working to satisfy the thirst of people in a village of Sudan. Your participation in the Lenten Rice Bowl program is another way you are doing this.

What we should all be trying to do is to live the beatitudes – in our lives and in solidarity with all the poor of the world, whether in Ames, in Sudan and Uganda, or in the poor diocese of Santa Rosa de Copán in Honduras where I serve. And thus we will begin to show the world that the Kingdom of God is already in some small ways in our midst and that the fulfillment of that kingdom will come by God’s hand – together with ours.

And so we can pray and act today as we shall soon pray in the words that Jesus gave us – Our Father,… Your Kingdom come … on earth as it is in heaven.


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