Ministry Experiences

Ministry Experiences

Moving on

NOV 05

November is the month traditionally dedicated to the memory of the dead. 1st November, All Saints’ Day happens to be my birthday.  It always fell during the Diwali Holidays in Mumbai. So I do not remember ever going to school on that day. I used to be a bit annoyed when at 12 noon on that day my mother would gather us all together and make us recite all the 15 decades of the Rosary for the Dead. The indulgences were said to be applicable to the Holy Souls from 12 noon on the 1 Nov. and the whole of 2nd Nov. One precious hour of my birthday wasted – or so I mused, when I was a child.

It is interesting to hear how we usually speak of death. When I was around 4 years old, I found my mother crying one day. To see our parents (grown-ups) cry was a rarest of the rare phenomenon. The lady next door sat by her. She told me that my mother had ‘lost’ her brother. When the lady moved away, I whispered to my Mum: Don’t cry Mummy, they will ‘find’ him.

Worse still when someone says: ‘He is no more!’ Gosh! So, what happened to him? Just dissolved into thin air? Another way of putting it is: “He has passed away!” Where exactly is that ‘away’?

I like better what we sometimes hear: ‘He has passed on!’  Or, He has moved on! Somewhat like a graduation. One phase of life is over so that another may begin. I heard this in Africa where there are so many young people dying of AIDS. Death comes as a relief after a long and painful illness. In one of the schools we have for girls, they do not have an ex-students’ Association, because there is hardly anyone left, five years after they leave us!

Most people have a great fear of death. Perhaps it is a consequence of our instinctual sense of self-preservation, our survival instinct, our clinging to life. Death seems to be a ‘losing’ of life and all that is familiar to us. It is a fear of the unknown. No one has returned to tell us what they have found on the other side … if there is an ‘other’ side!  The fear of the unknown again!

Then there is the fear of the possible suffering entailed, the dread of being alone and helpless, the fear of separation from loved ones … someone even worded it poetically as the terror of being left alone in the grave when everyone will leave, after the funeral!

It is good for us to think of death sometimes. Oh, yes, we do! But it is usually about someone else dying. We seldom think of our own ‘moving on’ as a certainty.  We may consider “If I die…”, as if we have a choice! But we hardly ever think of it as a certainty; “when I die…”

I think that God is really a doting Father, in that He keeps the time and circumstances of our death a “top secret”, so that we may live in full throttle till the very last moment. If we knew for certain the day and place of our death in advance, we would probably live in such dread, that all the time still left to us would be robbed of its vitality and joy. We would live like a Lazarus, all dressed up for his funeral, not coming out of his tomb, but frozen and dreading the moment when he would be asked to march on.

I look at death this way: I believe that God is our loving and doting father. As an earthly father waits to take a photograph of his child when the child is at its charming best… so God takes us when we are at our best. He is not a policeman, just waiting to catch us when we are wrong. He gives us time to right that wrong! He is not here to ‘condemn’ us, but has taken all the trouble to ‘save’ us.

Death is our second ‘birth’. A child in the womb is happy and care-free, swimming to its heart’s content. But then, as it grows, the space within becomes stifling, confining. The child becomes uncomfortable, too big for that restricted area. The natural birth process begins, and the babe comes out to a wider world, full of new possibilities. Our earthly existence, satisfying though it might seem, is not without its worries and pain. When we reach the threshold of pain, when we can take it no longer or are just too enfeebled by the weight of years, God comes in as the charming liberator, luring us to a fuller, eternal existence.  To be home with Him, never to be ever separated again! What glory! What freedom! What unsurpassable joy!

The pages of the New Testament are filled with this hope, this light, this glowing warmth. Some say that religion – all religions – are a promise of a ‘pie in the sky’. And they ask: What if, after striving to fulfill every dictate of religion, after years of ‘faithful’ adherence, at death we find that it was all a hoax, just a yawning void, and that there really isn’t anything beyond? Would life not have been just a pitiable waste of an opportunity to enjoy oneself, to have a good time … to hell with the rest?  … Well, in that case there would not be a hell either! Nor a heaven!

Even if … yes even if … there was nothing beyond … I think it would still be a reward in itself to live by one’s conscience, to strive for the pure, the good, the beautiful! The aura of goodness is an exhilarating experience … a divine bliss. It raises us over the mundane and makes us sensitive to the ethereal, to the magical world of a creation saturated with the presence of its Maker.

So Jesus says: Be prepared, like the wise virgins, for you do not know the day, nor the hour.

St Magdalene of Canossa used to exhort her Sisters: “Give things the weight you would give them one hour after your death.”  A great tool to regain our equilibrium, when we tend to drown in a cup-full of trouble.  On another occasion she said: “If you live detached from everything and everybody, natural death will cost you nothing.”

So, we could sing out with St Paul: O Death, where is your victory? O Death, where is your sting?

I end with a poem I once came across.

The Dash

I read of a man who stood to speak at the funeral of a friend.
He referred to the dates on the tombstone, from the beginning…to the end.
He noted that first came the date of birth … and spoke the following date with tears,
But he said what mattered most of all was the ‘dash’ between those years.

For that dash represents all the time that they spent alive on earth.
And now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.
For it matters not, how much we own, the cars…the house…the cash.
What matters is how we live and love, and how we spend our ‘dash.’

So, think about this long and hard. Are there things you’d like to change?
For you never know how much time is left, that can still be rearranged.

If we could just slow down enough to consider what’s true and real
and always try to understand the way other people feel.
And be less quick to anger, and show appreciation more
and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before. 


If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile,
remembering that this special ‘dash’ might only last a little while.
​So, when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash…
would you be proud of the things they say, about how you spent YOUR ‘dash’?

 

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Sr Esme da Cunha fdcc

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Ministry Experiences

MEETING THE MEN ON DEATH ROW

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Basing himself on his experience of working with men condemned to death for serious crimes, Brother Carmel shares what he learnt about these men, how he now sees capital punishment and the meaning of Redemption—for the prisoners and for us.

I was elated when on August 2, 2018, Pope Francis declared that the Death Penalty was inadmissible under any circumstance. I was also glad that even Bishop Theodore Mascarenhas, Secretary General of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India, positions the same statement, while respecting the law of the country. At the same time he doubts whether it will solve the issues. And I agree with him!

Before coming to India, I was working as a Chaplain in one of the biggest jails in California—Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles. For ten years, on a daily basis I would meet young men who were still awaiting their trials. A lot of them, being there for a heinous crime, were facing the death penalty. Some of them were as young as eighteen. For some of them it was their first crime ever. Others were seasoned “criminals.” After being sentenced, they were sent to Death Row in St. Quentin. That is where I would visit some of them at least once or twice a year.

Twice I took the witness stand in a Los Angeles Court for two inmates. People ask me why I did it. Weren’t they murderers? I’d use Don Cabana’s words from his book, Death at Midnight, “I knew this man. I believed his life was worth saving.” It was after these trials that I started getting interested in the death penalty, its implications and ramifications.

Marvin: A Cruel Gang-Leader, Murderer and Yet…

I clearly remember the morning when I took the stand to witness in favour of Marvin. Marvin’s story was one of true and sincere redemption. He was one of the founders of a big Asian gang, and consequently he was convicted of eight murders and ten attempted murders committed in the early 90s. In one of the murders, Marvin and two other assailants committed a home invasion robbery in Los Angeles in the middle of the night and, when confronted, they executed the father in the presence of his wife and small children. In another murder incident, he threw a hand-grenade into a large crowd of young adults gathered in a parking lot outside a dance hall and, after the grenade failed to detonate, bitterly complained later to fellow gang members about the grenade failure. In 1996, Marvin fled from the U.S. and, settling in another country under an assumed name, he carved out a new life and embraced a path toward redemption, during which time he rejected the gang life style, operated two successful businesses, actively participated in the Church and married into a prominent family. After ten years, he was caught and extradited to Los Angeles. I met Marvin a few days later when he was booked in Men’s Central Jail.

On February 28, 2011, I took the witness stand for Marvin. Testifying in court is not a pleasant experience, especially when your friend or family member has just been found guilty of cruel and heinous crimes. It’s not easy when the families of the murdered victims, whose life changed tragically the day your friend decided to kill their loved one, are there in front of you listening to you pleading for his life when you know that nobody was pleading for the life of their loved ones when he killed them.

Relatives of the accused cannot enter the court room to give support, at least with their presence, to a dear one; thus the prisoner spends the whole duration of the trial alone. I remember the trial of Richard—a young man—whose mother (who lived pretty far away) used to go to court every day and sit outside alone in the hallway while her son was being tried.

Can you imagine the pain a mother has to bear when she hears the prosecutor calling her son a monster? She had conceived and given birth to a monster. This and other questions used to haunt me. What if I’m wrong? What if I’m on the wrong side of the courtroom? Why am I on the side of a murderer? I remember sharing this dilemma with my father on the phone one Sunday morning during one of the trials and he simply told me, “My son, do what you need to do in order to save his life. He’s too young.” That was what I needed to hear.

Yes, I would return to the witness stand if needs be, even at the expense of being jeered at by the prosecutor and called insensitive to the pain of the victim’s family (which I’m definitely not), naïve (after 15 years working with inmates I do get a sense of who’s lying, who’s trying to take advantage of me, and who’s genuine) or a weird Catholic priest. Well, this I accept. Yes, I am weird, to be on the side of a murderer and see some goodness in him.

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Three Myths

There are three myths associated with the death penalty:

  1. The Myth of Closure: After 18 months, Omar pleaded guilty to a crime he had committed. Together with his public defender, district attorney and the victim’s family, he agreed to take a sentence of life without the possibility of parole. Omar went to prison for life and the victim’s family can hopefully start the process of This is what I consider closure. When a death sentence is applied on a prisoner, he will have to go through so many appeals before he is actually executed. The pain and suffering of both families—the victim’s and perpetrator’s—are relived over and over again each time the inmate has a court hearing. That is definitely not closure.
  1. The Myth of Deterrence: up till now I have never met anybody who told me that he stopped half way from committing a crime because he became aware of the possibility he may be executed. Generally speaking, murders are committed under three circumstances: the first, out of passion and rage, g., when a man comes back from work and finds his wife in bed with another man, takes out the gun and shoots him/them; the second for money (including gang related murders), where a capital crime is calculated and coldly premeditated; the third because of mental sickness. In all these cases, no one will ever stop midway thinking about the death penalty.
  1. The Myth of Proportionality: meaning that only the worst-of-the-worst get the ultimate penalty. This is not true. Usually it is the ones who do not have money for an excellent team of lawyers and investigators who get the Death Penalty—meaning: the rich get life in prison and the poor get the Death.

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Why Do You Do This Ministry?

People ask me “How can you do it?” My first reaction is, “How can I not do it?” But to tell you the truth, I do ask the same question myself. Let me give a couple of reasons:

There is surely some kind of identification with the men I meet in prison. Like them I am locked up in my compulsions, obsessions, defects of character and because of this, there is a deep need inside of me for wholeness, for a clear understanding of who I am, what am I doing and a desire to be free of all that shackles me. A few months before I left Los Angeles, I visited Christian on death row in San Quentin. During the five- hour visit, locked with Christian inside a one-point-five-square-meter cage, he brought up the subject of making amends to the victim’s family. We talked for a long time about the reasons why he wanted to make the amends and the possibilities of how to make them. It was a heartfelt conversation which came up unexpectedly for me, and for which I am so ever grateful. I remember telling him, “Christian, whether or not you make amends, you will always have this pain to carry your whole life.”

We continued to write, but Christian put one condition, never to mention God or religion in my letters. I kept my side of the deal. Five years later he finally broke his side. In a letter dated January 23, 2014, he wrote:

“I’m sometimes not familiar with who I am anymore. I experience these emotions I’ve never felt before and it freaks me out! Am I crazy, my dearest friend? No, I am not, I’m just going thru it . . . and its tuff! But smile, ‘cause guess what? . . . I’ve been praying! I don’t know to who, but I’m praying. And don’t you start talking about Jesus! I’m just praying to whatever creator there is.”

Beautiful! Sheer beauty. I imagine God and Christian having a tête-a-tête inside San Quentin.

These are the fleeting moments of joy and consolation in my life. I am honoured to receive such letter. Honoured to know and consider Christian an intimate friend, and especially be present at the moment of the rekindling of the spark. At the same time, I experience pain and suffering. In the past years I have been trying to come to grips with this incessant feeling that the only way I can become who I am meant to be is through the dark path of pain. Experiencing the pain of the men I meet daily, locked up behind bars—the pain of listening and absorbing their darkness, their sins, their murders, their rapes, their embezzlements, their gang fights, their being abandoned by their family, their passing through court trials on their own, their denial of their involvement in the crimes, the sheer callousness and coldness of what they were capable of doing.

As Claudia—a forensic psychologist and mitigating specialist—once wrote to me: “We are in the most wonderful of professions. We hear secrets. We listen to compelling stories. Yes, sometimes our days are filled with outcries of despair, frustration, repetitive self-defeating behaviours and a variety of other stigmata that flow from the wounds of human psyches. Sometimes, though, we bear witness to radiant triumphs and even to the sudden and unpredictable raining down of goodness on one or another of our clients.”


Brother Carmel is a Missionary of Charity (MC) for the past 28 years, lived in Colombia, Peru, Guatemala and Los Angeles (where he mainly worked in prisons) and for the past year in Kolkata. He is originally from Malta.

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Ministry Experiences

Wiping the Face of Jesus

11

An Indian Sister working in Europe faces the challenges of a very secularized society where religion means very little to many people, especially the young. She sees the painful loneliness of many people, and looks at ways she can bring God’s love to them.

It is a great and touching moment in the life of Veronica when, she as a woman, came forward to wipe the face of Jesus covered with tears and blood. As a Missionary Sister of Mary Help of Christians working in Europe, I feel connected to that story. How?

I have been working mostly in Italian parishes. As I am involved in the pastoral care of the people, this face of Jesus covered with tears and blood comes alive to me.

From my personal experience, there are two categories of people I meet. One is the fervent and devoted people, faithful to their religious practices, who live their life in the light of faith. The other is the lukewarm and the indifferent people who seem to have no interest in religious faith and practices.

The faithful and devoted people give me a sense of joy and hope and are a source of great strength and support to work for the spread of the Gospel. Their presence, encouragement and involvement in pastoral work, as well as the support they give us, are a great source of strength for us.

For the other group, instead, religion is a thing of the past and a throw-away product. They totally and openly oppose anything that is spiritual or connected to the Church. In this sense they are a big threat for our civilization as they rob the hope and faith of our people. They ridicule and oppose religious beliefs and practices, and see no relevance in them.

We meet both these types of persons every day. The first group makes us feel that the fire of faith is still burning; the others show you how decadent faith and church practice can become. I am a witness to both types daily.

Largely, young people are the ones who tend to have little or nothing to do with faith. They are Christians only at the time of Baptism and Holy Communion. A handful of them receive the Sacrament of Confirmation. As for the Sacrament of Matrimony, it seems to be the most neglected sacrament, since young couples live together even before their marriage. Celebrating the Sacraments seems to have become merely a social custom where the emphasis is on partying. The sacredness, devotion and the relevance of the Sacraments are getting lost.

Modernity and consumerism influence all aspects of life. As a result, people generally do not have time to spare for their faith formation. Every other sphere of life is consciously taken care of, whereas what has to do with the Church and faith, gets the last place and least importance.  Many in the younger generation see religion as a relic from the past unconnected to them in any way.

In Italy (or other European countries) you can find so many beautiful chapels, churches, shrines and basilicas. But, sadly, these have become places of tourist attraction. Most visitors are interested not in prayer and God, but in art, sculpture and architecture. Many do not seem to feel the presence of God in their life. A sense of the sacred is sadly missing.

Amidst all this, my call to be a messenger of God’s love is a real challenge. It is not about any great changes that I can usher in. It is about wiping the face of Jesus in this environment and situation. I realize that I cannot change the setting nor can I glory in myself. But I can make a difference in the lives of those I meet. How can I do it in this spiritually “dry” setting, where religious practices mean so little to most people?

I believe I can and must bring God’s love to these sisters and brothers of mine in the small ways open to me. After all, the human heart is the same in all cultures and settings. People long for love and care, and suffer when they do not get it. Though materially more prosperous than most people in India, Europeans often suffer from deep loneliness and lack of family ties. Many older people have no one to talk to. They have medical insurance, but miss the tender presence of another caring human being. After all, food, phone and TV cannot fill the human heart.

So, we (Sisters) do family visits and go to meet people who are sick. We spend time with them. We speak. We listen. These are small things, but isn’t life mostly about the so-called small things? Besides, what are the really “big” things in life? What are the “small” things?

Many times, I have experienced deep joy in my heart as I realize that, like Veronica, I can wipe the face of a tired and suffering Jesus. Wiping His face was a tiny gesture, but, done with love, it meant much. No wonder we have a Station of the Cross dedicated to it.

I can wipe the face of a tired and suffering Jesus when I visit a sick or lonely person, when I listen to a troubled youngster or a depressed senior, when I spend time with a family, when I really show concern to someone who has nobody to talk to. I have found that a kind word, a smile, or listening that makes them feel understood, a word of hope, an assurance of prayer and support—all this makes a huge difference in the lives of people. We need not wait for the big occasion or any special place or time. We can bring joy and healing to people in any place, on any ordinary day.

Most people, including those who look confident and successful, are insecure, lonely and looking for someone to talk to. Many long to find someone who will listen to them without judging, welcome them when they are troubled, and have time for them when they feel lost.

So many people carry heavy burdens and face heart-rending struggles. Many are overwhelmed by broken relationships, unhappy family situations, desperate financial straits, betrayals and loss of meaning. They feel they have no one to turn to. When struck by tragedy, they feel utterly alone. Very often, their image (and experience) of the Church is that of a huge impersonal organization rather than of a caring family close to them.

Many times I have felt humbled and seen my faith deepen through my meetings with ordinary people and listening to their struggles. Behind the apparent lack of faith or religiosity, I have seen their courage, their readiness to forgive, their determination not to give up, and much goodness. I also see their deep and painful loneliness. They want to pick up the pieces of their brokenness and stand on their feet again. Obviously, these persons, who have suffered much and struggled valiantly, have more to teach me than I can teach them. I also realized that my own problems and struggles are almost insignificant—mere pin-pricks—compared to the bitter pills many of them swallow.

Here is one such experience. Rosa (name changed) felt totally lost and broken. Her husband betrayed her for another woman; her daughter ran away; there was a case against her related to property matters. In spite of such a trying situation, Rosa did not buckle. She still loved her husband and her children. She sought strength in her faith. Her perseverance in prayer and never-say-die attitude helped her overcome the obstacles one by one. Her family is once again back together as one. This is what faith and love can do for us. But we all need a bit of loving human support when we are going through the storm. This is where we can, like Veronica, wipe their tearful and bleeding face with gentleness and love.

I have also found that, to be able to do this for our suffering people, we need to be credible. For that, I need to deepen my own faith, and be as genuine and loving as I can. In reaching out to the lonely and lost, and experiencing their faith and inner strength, my faith is deepened, too.


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