28 September 2013

Mission Appeal

This weekend finds me in Hampstead, NH at Saint Anne's for our annual Capuchin Mission Appeal.

This homily is polished up from last year, so some of the stories may seem similar.  Since I haven't been to Honduras since I wrote last year's homily, there wasn't much to add.

If you'd like to learn more about the Capuchin Missions, click here.

I figure that I’m in a win-win situation.  You see, if I preach well, you’ll be generous to the collection today for the missions.  If I preach poorly, however, you’ll be even more generous so the Capuchins have enough money to send me far away from New Hampshire.

My name is Brother Matt Janeczko and I’m a Capuchin Franciscan.  I’m currently studying at Boston College for the priesthood.  I’ll be ordained, God willing, in May and begin service to the churches in New York and New England.  You can tell, by now I’m sure, because of my accent that I’m not from around here.  I grew up in northern New Jersey, in the shadows of New York City and Giants’ stadium.  Please don’t hold it against me: I root for the Red Sox, if only for them to turn back the evil Yankees from winning the division. 

It would be easy, given this week’s Gospel, to preach for the missions in a threatening way, because it seems as if Jesus provides us with a choice: we take care of the many Lazarus-es that we meet and enjoy eternal life, or, ignore the plight of the poor and risk the consequences. 

Yet, that is not the message that I’m going to share with you this morning (afternoon): no, the Gospel is supposed to be good news – and it is Good News precisely because the message of our Lord always triumphs, no matter how long it takes.  And thanks to many people like you who have answered the call to care for the poor, the Good News is being spread by the Capuchins throughout Africa, Asia and the Americas.

You see, eight hundred years ago, a man Francis recognized the Gospel message could not be constrained to rural Italy.  He thus sent the men he called his “brothers,” the earliest Franciscans out, two by two, to preach the Gospel to Europe and beyond. 

To these early missionaries, he offered advice: “[P]roclaim the Word of God when [you] see it pleases the Lord, so that [those to whom you go] believe in the all-powerful God – Father, and Son and Holy Spirit.” 

Francis didn’t provide much other advice.  In fact, when the friars arrived in Germany they only knew one word in German: Yes.  Thus, they were asked if they were missionaries: Yes.  Preachers?  Yes.  Heretics? Yes.  Against the pope? Yes.  And thus the first Franciscan mission ended in disaster. 

Some five hundred years ago, the Capuchin Franciscans followed and Francis’ advice – and it changed their lives and the lives of those around them forever.  The earliest Capuchins were hermits – the traveled to the mountains and planned to stay there, away from a world gone made.  Yet soon after their arrival, the plague hit the village in the valley next to their dwellings.  Realizing that they could not claim to be Christians and ignore the plight of those in the valley, the left their hermitages and began to serve the sick and dying.  Some of earliest Capuchins succumbed to the disease, while others lived. 

Soon afterwards, the Capuchins began what even the most sympathetic authors called an “adventure of folly.”  Looking around at a world rife by division, they set out to re-evangelize Europe during the Protestant Reformation not through clubs or political treaty, but through the power of their Christian example and devotion.  At the same time, still other Capuchins crossed the battle lines of the Crusades and worked amongst Christian captives.  Their work so impressed the opposing armies, that missionaries who died were allowed full Christian burials in enemy territory – quite an honor during a war of religion!

More recently, Capuchins have answered a similar call. Members of my province, Capuchins from New York/New England, traveled to a far off speck on the map in the Pacific Ocean to a place called Guam.  Caught behind the raging tides of the Battle for the Pacific during World War II, these men were captured by the Japanese, shipped to mainland Japan and endured torture and ridicule.  At the conclusion of the war, more missionaries were sent to Guam while many of those originally captured returned. 

The Capuchins remain in Okinawa and mainland Japan until this day.  In fact, during the tsunami and subsequent nuclear meltdown in Japan just a few years ago, we, the Capuchins, were there.  We manned relief stations, opening our friaries and churches to people in need.  Our work in a non-Christian land spread the Gospel: we demonstrated our faith by our works.

While some American Capuchins went to the Far East, many other Capuchins throughout the world went to Africa.  There, they built schools, purified water and opened up health clinics.  They also planted the seeds of a local Catholic Church that is thriving today.  Our friars are still there.  In fact, I’m proud to say that when other religious communities broke up because of tribal tensions in recent times, the Capuchin communities have stayed strong, maintaining a bond of brotherhood rooted in the Gospel.

Around that same time, other Capuchins set out for Central America.  They ended up in places with names like Bluefields, Nicaraugua, Ocotepeque, Honduras, and Chiquimula, Guatlamala.  In these places, a new generation of missionaries emerged.  These men were born in places like Brooklyn, NY and Hartford, CT and followed the call of the Gospel further than they might otherwise have planned. 

And thus, Father Earl Gallagher, a Brooklyn native, became Padre Betto, a man with a great white beard, prematurely balding head, big smile and the typical American habit of mangling the native language. At a time when he was helping refugees from El Salvador to survive, Betto was suspected of cooperating with the foreign guerillas.  Honduran soldiers twice beat him severely and Betto was forced to take refuge with sympathetic natives.

Another friar, Father John Connors became Padre Juanco.  His teaching, organizational, and motivational skills were put to good use as director of El Yunque, where lay leaders were trained to lead services in the various towns and village on no-priest Sundays, to ready couples for the sacrament of marriage, and to prepare parents for the baptism of their children.

Two summers ago, I had the privilege of going to the same places where Fathers Betto and Juancho walked.  I knew I was in troubled when those on my plane cheered – for a simple landing, as if this was something unusual.  My unease increased when the friars who picked me up put my luggage in the cab of their pickup truck and me in the truck bed.  They were more worried about the luggage being stolen than the friar!  I also found the mosquitos to be quicker than those in Boston and all the horror stories about drinking the water to be true.  But most importantly, I learned that the missionary efforts of the Capuchin are still alive, well and vital.

Perhaps an example will help: I recall a young girl, likely eight or nine, who was could neither hear nor speak.  She would run through the church in Ocotepeque during each of the masses on Sunday, giving out hugs to each person present.  Her smile was infectious.  Yet, this young girl, Flor – or, flower in Spanish – was undernourished and seemingly without parents or a place to call home.  She found a home in the parish staffed by the friars.  In this small example is where the Capuchin missionary identity becomes reality: we spread the Gospel by our works, prayers and presence.  The purpose of a missionary takes its cue from each individual person contacted, each person who is able to come into contact with the loving Christ because of the missionary’s efforts.

Thank you for your patience in listening to me, a two-month missionary, offers a bit of reflection about the Capuchin missions around the world.  Your help today, not only provides support to our friars abroad, but also assures that the Lazurus-es of the world continue to receive care and comfort from the table of the Lord.

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