The Best Among Us

The Best Among Us




Pandita Ramabai Sarasvati was an Indian woman, born to a Brahmin father, Anant Shastri, and his second wife, Lakshmibai. Her father, a learned Sanskrit scholar, taught Puranas in the temples for a livelihood.

Ramabai’s family became ostracised from the moment her father started teaching Sanskrit to her mother. From then on the family fell into poverty and took to the road as religious itinerants. When Pandita was sixteen, her parents and sister died of starvation. Only she and her brother Srinivas were left.

Both of them decided to carry on their father’s teaching work. They continued travelling all over India. Her passion for reading never faltered.

Ramabai’s fame as a lecturer reached Calcutta, where she was invited to speak.  At the age of twenty, she became the first woman to receive the title of pandita (female pundit or Sanskrit scholar) and Sarasvati from Calcutta University.

After the death of Srinivas, in 1880, Ramabai married a Bengali lawyer, Bipin Behari Medhvi. The marriage both inter-caste and inter-regional upset society’s traditions. The couple had a daughter: Manorama.

Among her husband’s books Ramabai found the ‘Gospel according to St Luke.’ She was fascinated by what she read. She wanted to know more about Christ, but met her husband’s resistance and gave up.

After Medhvi’s death, in 1882, Ramabai moved to Pune. There she founded the Arya Mahila Samaj (Arya Women’s Society) to promote women’s education and uproot the practice of child marriage.

From then on she travelled widely in India and abroad to bring forth women’s emancipation through education, fairer laws and attitudes.

Her speeches and addresses on the importance of women’s education had deep reach and impact. One of them even nreached Queen Victoria and incited the starting of the Women’s Medical Movement by Lady Dufferin.

While in England, Ramabai experienced the love and compassion of Jesus Christ. She and her daughter became Christian.

Ramabai travelled quite extensively. Her genuine compassion towards the plight of widows, girl-brides and uneducated women mobilized women from all over the world.

In 1888, Ramabai came back to India. She started the “Sharda Sadan” (House of knowledge) for girls.

Pandita Ramabai kept on her work and care for girls and women till she passed away on 5th April, 1922.



Pierre Teilhard de Chardin was a French Jesuit. As a philosopher and palaeontologist, he strove to understand the links between science and faith.

He was the fourth of eleven children. From his father, Emmanuel, an amateur naturalist, Pierre learnt the observation of nature. From his mother, Berthe, he learnt spirituality.

As he grew, Teilhard’s interest in the world of nature drew him to study geology and natural sciences.

After he entered the Jesuits, his spiritual director helped him understand that he could give glory to God through following his intellectual interests.

In 1914, as the World War I started, Pierre was enlisted into the French army though he was already an ordained priest.

The slaughter and crippling of millions of men shook Teilhard’s faith. However, he could see, even in the midst of human tragedy, a sense of communion with the world and communion with God united in the crucified Christ.

He later wrote: “…the war was a meeting … with the Absolute.”

He was appointed to teach at the University in Paris, and later asked not to do so. Instead, he was “exiled” to China, where he did splendid studies in paleontology, and was part of a team that discovered the famous fossil, Synanthropus Pekinensis.

Several of his writings, combing science and spirituality in creative ways, were misunderstood by church authorities. He was not allowed to publish them. When friends outside the church published them, it made him and his ideas very well known. His ideas have been cited by Pope Francis in the 2015 encyclical, Laudato si’.

Teilhard’s unique relationship to both paleontology and Catholicism allowed him to develop a highly progressive, cosmic theology which took into account his evolutionary studies. Teilhard recognized the importance of bringing the Church into the modern world. He was both a scientist of calibre and a mystic—but very few within church circles understood him.


CÉSAR  ESTRADA CHÁVEZ (1927-1993) – DIED 23 APRIL 1993

César Chávez was an American labour leader and civil rights activist.

He was born to a Mexican-American family of six children. During the Great Depression, César’s family lost their land and all they had. To survive, they became farm workers.

In 1942, Chavez quit school and started working full time as a migrant farmer so that his mother would not have to slave in the fields.

In 1946, he joined the United States Navy, hoping it would give him the opportunity to learn skills for his future. However, the military experience turned out to be “the two worst years of his life.”

He married, and became the father of eight children.

Chavez worked in the fields until 1952. He then became an organizer for the Community Service Organization (CSO). He became widely known later for his struggle to procure a just wage for farm workers. He undertook several “spiritual fasts,” seeing this as “a personal spiritual transformation.” These fasts were influenced by the Catholic tradition of penance and by Mahatma Gandhi’s fasts and emphasis of nonviolence.

In 1988, Chavez attempted his last fast to protest the exposure of farm workers to pesticides. He fasted for thirty-five days before being convinced by others to start eating again. He had lost fifteen kilos. It caused health problems that eventually led to his death.



Gianna Molla was a pediatrician and a mother who chose to die so that her child might live.

She was born in Italy, the tenth of thirteen children

In 1942 she began her studies in medicine. Besides her studies, she was active in the Azione Cattolica (Catholic Action) movement and an adventurous woman who loved skiing and mountaineering.

In 1949, she received her medical degree, and opened an office close to her hometown.

Gianna had planned to join her brother, a priest in the Brazilian missions, and offer gynaecological services to poor women. When her chronic ill health prevented her from doing so, she continued her work at her clinic and specialized in paediatrics.

She reflected and prayed over her vocation. Having felt called to the vocation of marriage, she embraced it with enthusiasm and resolve to wholly dedicated herself ‘to forming a truly Christian family.’ She married Pietro Molla, an engineer. They had four children.

During the second month of her fourth pregnancy, Gianna developed a fibroma in her uterus. The doctors gave her three choices: an abortion, a complete hysterectomy or the removal of the fibroma alone.

As a mother, doctor and committed Christian, Gianna felt morally bound to choose her child’s life over hers. She therefore opted for the removal of the fibroma. She told the doctors that her child’s life was more important than her own.

On 21 April 1962, Holy Saturday, Gianna’s fourth child, Gianna Emanuela, was delivered. Gianna, however, continued to have severe pain. She died of septic peritonitis one week later. She was thirty-nine years old. Among her last words were, “Jesus, I love you.”

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Katharine Drexel (1858-1955) – 3 March

Katharine Drexel is the first American-born saint to be canonized by the Catholic Church.

Though born in an extremely wealthy family–her father was a banker—she surprised the social circles of her time by leaving it all to enter a religious order.

She established a religious congregation, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, in order to reach out and combat the effects of racism especially for the First Nation people (Native Americans, or the group some of us refer to as “American Indians”) and for the African Americans of the United States.

Founding and staffing schools for both Native Americans and Afro-Americans throughout the country was the priority for Katharine and her congregation. During her lifetime, she opened, organized and directly supported nearly sixty schools and missions, especially in the West and Southwest United States. Her ‘educational masterpiece’ was the establishment in 1925 of Xavier University of Louisiana, the only predominantly Afro-American Catholic institution of higher learning in the United States.

How could a wealthy heiress like Katherine become a religious, start a congregation and address the issue of racial inequalities much before it became a society’s concern?

It is said that first, watching her stepmother’s three-year struggle with terminal cancer taught her that the ‘Drexel money’ could not buy safety from pain or death.

Second, seeing the social injustices and state of destitution of the Native Americans and African Americans compelled her to ‘do something, to start something.’

And, finally, Pope Leo XIII’s challenge to become a missionary herself instead of searching for others to do the mission led her to give her whole life to God and the mission.

The Vatican cites the fourfold aspects of Drexel’s legacy:

  • a love of the Eucharist and perspective on the unity of all peoples;
  • courage and initiative in addressing social inequality among minorities before such concern aroused public interest in the United States;
  • her belief in quality education for all and efforts to achieve it;
  • selfless service, including the donation of her inheritance, for the victims of injustice.


Martin Niemöller (1892-1984) – 6 March

Martin Niemöller was a German anti-Nazi theologian and Lutheran pastor.

During the First World War, Niemöller had a successful career as submarine navigator. However, at the end the war, he resigned his commission, as he rejected the new democratic government of the German Empire. After marrying Else Bremer, he pursued his earlier idea of becoming a Lutheran pastor, and studied Protestant theology.

Initially, as a national conservative, Martin Niemöller supported the ideas of Adolf Hitler. He then went on to become one of the founders of the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazification of German Protestant churches.

He is best known for his statement:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”

This is what happens when we keep quiet in the face of evil.

For his opposition to the Nazis’ state control of the churches, Niemöller was imprisoned in Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1938 to 1945 and narrowly escaped execution.

After his imprisonment, he expressed his deep regret about not having done enough to help the victims of the Nazis.

Niemöller stated that his eight-year imprisonment had been the turning point in his life. After it he viewed things differently.

Under the impact of a meeting with Otto Hahn (the “father of nuclear chemistry”), in July 1954, Niemöller became an outspoken pacifist and campaigner for nuclear disarmament. He was a leading figure in the post-war German peace movement and was even brought to court in 1959 for speaking about the military in a very unflattering way.

He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in December of 1966.

Niemöller died at Wiesbaden, West Germany, on 6 March 1984, at the age of 92.


Angela Salawa (1881-1922) – 12 March

Angela Salawa was a Polish woman who served in hospitals during the World War I.

She was born in a poor family and suffered from being weak and sickly throughout her life.

She received two years of formal education, and at the age of 12, began to work as a domestic in nearby homes.

In 1897, she moved to Kraków, where her older sister lived. There, she started working as a maid.

Angela also gathered together and instructed young women domestic workers through the Saint Zita Association. During these years, Angela underwent painful misunderstanding with her family and from false accusations from her employer.

Though she had considered becoming a religious, her weak physical health did not allow her to do so. She decided to remain in the world, taking private vows of purity and virtue in 1900.

In 1912, she became a member of the Secular Franciscan Order.

She felt an affinity with Saint Francis of Assisi, who, like Angela herself, had broken up with his family.

During World War I, she helped prisoners of war without regard for their nationality or religion. She worked as a nurse in a Krakow hospital, spending her own money and any that she could beg to buy better food for injured soldiers. She found comfort and inspiration in the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross.

In 1916 her employer accused her of stealing, and dismissed her. In addition to her physical pain and illness, she became homeless. She was even discharged from the hospital because she appeared to be well.

Eventually she found a place in a basement room, abandoned by family, friends and neighbours. She survived on the charity of the Saint Zita Association, and spent her time in prayer

She died on 12 March 1922.

What We Can Learn from Angela: Feeding the hungry doesn’t guarantee we will be fed in turn in our hour of need. The source of Angela’s compassion was that she had first experienced God’s compassion and love.


Rutilio Grande (1928-1977) – 12 March

Rutilio grande was a Jesuit priest from El Salvador. He was a close friend of Archbishop Óscar Arnulfo Romero and the first priest assassinated before the civil war started.

Rutilio Grande was born on 5 July 1928, to a poor family in El Paisnal, El Salvador.

At the age of 17, Grande entered the Jesuit order and started his formation. After pronouncing his vows, he travelled to various countries his studies. It is at the major seminary of San José de la Montaña that Grande met and became friends with Romero, a fellow student. Grande was ordained a priest in 1959.

After his ordination, in 1963, Rutilio Grande went to the Lumen Vitae Institute in Brussels, Belgium. He was particularly influenced by his experiences of an inclusive liturgy which insisted upon the widest and deepest lay participation possible at that time.

He returned to El Salvador in 1965 and was appointed director of social action projects at the seminary in San Salvador.

During this time, Grande initiated a process of formation for seminarians which included pastoral “immersions” in the communities they would someday serve. Grande sought equilibrium between prayer, study and apostolic activity.

In 1973, Grande embarked on a team-based Jesuit evangelization “Mission” to Aguilares, El Salvador.

Grande led with the Gospel but did not shy away from speaking on social and political issues. He dared speaking publicly about the land reform, the relationship of rich and poor, liturgical inclusiveness, workers’ rights, etc. He thus made the Catholic faith real for very poor people.

This did not go well with the local landowners, who saw Grande’s organization of the peasants as a threat to their power.

On 13 February 1977, Grande preached a sermon denouncing the government’s expulsion of Father Bernal, a Colombian priest.

On 12 March 1977 Rutilio Grande was assassinated by the security forces of El Salvador, just outside the village where he was born, suffering martyrdom for the people he served and loved. It was his murder that made Bishop Oscar Romero determined to speak out against government’s atrocities.

Sr Marie Gabrielle Riopel SCSM

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FR PEDRO ARRUPE (1907-1991)

Fr Arrupe was the 28th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, and probably the most admired General after the founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola After many years as a missionary in Japan (including doing medical service among the victims of the atom bomb in Nagasaki), he was elected General. He led the Jesuits on the path of a “faith that does justice.” He took a firm stand for the poor, and refused to yield to those who threatened to kill the Jesuits who worked for justice in places like El Salvador. A mystic who combined a deep sense of God with a courageous stand for justice, he was much loved and admired.

Here are two much-quoted statements of his that all of us can learn from:

“Nothing is more practical than finding God, that is, than falling in a love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the mornings, what you will do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, who you know, what breaks your heart, and what amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”

“Today’s prime educational objective must be to form men and women for others who cannot even conceive of the love of God that does not include the love of the least of their neighbours.”

After he had a stroke, he could no longer function as General of the Jesuits. At the next General Congregation, he was wheeled into the hall, and a prayer written by him was read out: “More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is this difference: the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”

Fr Arrupe died in Rome on February 5, 1991.




Paul Mikki was a Japanese Jesuit and Gonsalo a Franciscan Brother from Bassein, who were martyred during the persecution of Christians in Japan in the sixteenth century. In fact, Gonsalo Garcia is the first canonized Indian saint.

They, as well as many other Christians after them, were crucified. The persecution was severe and ruthless. To identify Christians in hiding, government functionaries would round up whole villages and ask each one to stamp on a picture of Jesus or Mary. Those who refused, and their families, were executed. Some denied the faith to escape death, but many others professed their faith and died for it.

Christianity had no public face in Japan for the next two hundred years. But a number of Christians remained faithful, in secret. When a French priest was allowed into Japan in the 19th century as the chaplain for the French community, a group of Japanese approached him and told him they were Christians.

The cross marked the history of Christianity in Japan. After the nineteenth century, the number of Christians grew. A large centre of Catholicism in Japan was Nagasaki. About ten thousand of them were killed when the Americans dropped an atom bomb over that city.




Newman belonged to the Anglican Church, studied and held a prestigious post at Oxford University. In investigating Church history to defend the position of the Anglican Church, he was led more and more to the truth of the Catholic faith. He finally took a step that shocked his Anglican community: He became a Catholic. He later became a priest and well-known theological writer. His writings, The Grammar of Assent (about how one makes a faith commitment) and The Idea of a University (about the nature of university education) became much-quoted classics. Being ahead of his time, he was criticised in some influential church settings. Ideas which we find normal today were considered wrong or dangerous in the nineteenth century: The role of the laity, the importance of the intellectual in the church, the development of doctrine, separation between church and state, the key role of conscience. Only at the Second Vatican Council (1963-65) were Newman’s ideas really accepted by many in the Catholic Church, so much so that Pope Paul VI called the Council “Newman’s council.”

Much better known than his theological writings is a hymn Newman wrote, as he prayed for God’s guidance: “Lead, Kindly Light.” Its popular text includes these touching words: “The night is dark, and I am far from home. Lead Thou me on! Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.”




When Nazi power was at its height, and its murderous policies at their worst, a small group of students in Munich, inspired by their Christian faith, decided to resist. They started distributing pamphlets exposing what Hitler and Nazism were doing—the murder of Jews, the suppression of dissent, the destructive military policies.

Hans was a 23-year old medical student. His sister Sophie, 21, studied philosophy.

They were caught and interrogated.

At the interrogation, the police officer told Sophie that the government and the law came first. Sophie insisted that God and conscience should come first. At this, the officer lost his temper and shouted: “There is no God. And what is conscience?”

When they realized that the police had found them guilty, Hans and Sophie tried to take the whole responsibility on themselves, to save their other friends from the same fate. But the secret police rounded up everyone in the group.

Hans and Sophie were condemned to death.

There are at three movies about them. In the award-winning film, Sophie Scholl: The Final Days, one of the most moving scenes is when their parents are allowed to meet them for a few minutes. The father tells Sophie and Hans: “You did the right thing. I am proud of both of you.” Their mother, stroking Sophie’s cheek tenderly, tells her, “Child, you will not come through my door again. We will meet in heaven. Remember Jesus.” Sophie responds, “You, too, mom.”

Hans and Sophie and a friend of theirs were beheaded on February 22.

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He came from a noble family in Rome. Joined the Jesuits (against his family’s strong opposition). Came to India as a missionary. Noticed that the Portuguese missionaries had a very poor understanding of local cultures and languages, expected the Indian converts to give up their customs, and adopt European ways.

De Nobili studied Tamil and became very adept in that language. Learnt to read Sanskrit texts. Mixing with educated Hindus and reading Indian religious literature, he realized that upper caste Hindu looked down upon the Portuguese (for eating meat, drinking and not bathing regularly) and despised the local converts. He decided to enter into that world rather than remain an outsider. Adopted the saffron robe of a sanyasi, wore wooden sandals instead of shoes, spoke in Tamil and ate vegetarian food.

Upper caste Hindus started listening to this learned foreigner who could read, speak and write their languages, and had adapted their ways. He not only dressed and ate like a Hindu sanyasi, but he demonstrated a deep, scholarly understanding of Hindu religious texts, and presented Jesus as a guru. A number of Brahmins and others who had earlier shunned the Christians joined the church. Several influential people within the Church, however, were shocked at his “strange” new ways, and thought it a foolish aberration They influenced Rome to stop this “crazy” experiment. A local synod condemned him, but a decision from Rome later exonerated him.



MARY WARD (1586-1645)

Many founders and other pioneers faced opposition, misunderstanding and official disapproval, but Mary Ward’s case was particularly hard and unfair.

Her story in brief:

She was born into an aristocratic family in England at a time when Catholics were persecuted, priests travelled in secret and there were no convents. Her family wanted the good-looking and smart Mary to get married, but she wanted to become a nun. With no such chance in England, she went to Belgium, and joined the Poor Clares, who took her as a lay sister (meant to do manual work).

Left the order, with the dream of not only being a nun, but of starting an order of nuns who could work outside a traditional monastery—to do as women what the Jesuits were doing as male religious. This sounded like heresy in those days, and she faced fierce opposition, both from the church authorities and from society, which did not see women as equal to men. She suffered much for her convictions and her fidelity—contempt of influential people, imprisonment, and seeing the order suppressed. She later faced the further humiliation of having the order restored, provided she was not mentioned as the foundress.

As it happened with other heroic figures, the same church that gave her such a hard time in her life time later changed its perception of her, admitted her heroic holiness and declared her venerable.

She is the foundress of two congregations of women—the Loreto Sisters and Congregation of Jesus.

May what we understand as fidelity not only make us preserve what is old and valid, but also be open to the new ways in which God speaks to us.




His is the inspiring story of an unusual bishop who could never enter the city of which he was bishop, but wielded tremendous influence. One of his books became what we today would call a bestseller.

In a time of bitter antagonism among Christian churches, Francis de Sales decided to tread the path of gentleness.

Coming from a wealthy family that wanted him to become a lawyer and work in government service, he studied law, but chose to be a priest. He volunteered to work in Geneva, then a Calvinist stronghold that would not tolerate any Catholic presence. There were attempts on his life. He lived in poverty, relying on alms.

When he was appointed bishop of Geneva, the authorities would not allow him to enter the city. He administered the diocese from Annecy. He used love and gentleness to win over the people. More than two thousand families re-joined the church.

Bishop Francis became a famous preacher and a sought-after spiritual director. His book, An Introduction to the Devout Life, became widely popular. It presented holiness as something meant for everyone, not just for monks and nuns. He explained the way to God in simple, earthy examples which anyone would follow. Here are of three of his best-known sayings:

In a time of moral rigidity and religious wars, he said, “We can catch more flies with a spoonful of honey than with a barrel of vinegar.”

When preachers thundered on God’s punishments and on the need for physical penance, his stand was: “I would rather be judged by God than by my own mother.”

In the midst of bitter antagonism from other denominations, he once told an opponent, “Even if you pluck out one of my eyes, I will look at you kindly with the other eye.”

What an example!



THOMAS AQUINAS (1125-1274)

He came from a noble family in Southern Italy, which kept him with the Benedictine monks of Monte Cassino for studies. That monastery was influential, and his family would have liked it if Thomas had joined this politically powerful group. Instead, they shocked him by wanting to join a new group of “begging (mendicant) friars,” the Dominicans. To make him give up his idea, they locked up in their castle for a year, but finally relented.

Quiet and corpulent, Thomas was at first ridiculed by his fellow pupils at the university as a “Dumb Ox.” But his professor, the erudite Albert the Great, saw his pupil’s acumen and predicted, “One day this Dumb Ox’s bellowing will be heard all over the world.”

Thomas Aquinas was an exceptional genius who could dictate to four secretaries simultaneously on different topics, wrote on a vast number of topics and impressed his contemporaries for both his towering intellect and his holiness of life.

He was open to the secular learning available at the university, namely, the vast corpus of Aristotle’s writings. Some church people were scandalized that Thomas used the philosophy of this non-Christian thinker as a tool for his theology. His writings were condemned twice by the bishop of Paris. Later, he would become the best known and most quoted Christian theologian of all time.

Several doctrines that form the bedrock of Catholic theology go back to the approach Thomas Aquinas took: A positive view of human nature, trust in reason, the autonomy of the human sciences,  the healthy role of passions in life (they are to be tamed, not despised or discarded), the importance of friendship, the central role of creativity in ethics (since we are the image of the Creator), personal responsibility in moral judgements, the right everyone has to enjoy the goods of the earth, the focus on the learner in education, and a humble recognition of our ignorance of God (“This is to know God, that we are aware that we do not know God”) which saves us from arrogant claims or narrow rejection of others’ religious views.

Aquinas’ reputation has been damaged by a number of mediocre “Thomists,” who quoted him without understanding him, and tended to impose “Thomism” as an answer to all questions, which is in sharp contract to his own spirit of inquiry, openness and awareness of limit.

That, unfortunately, happens to many first rate minds who become victims of their third rate followers!

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St. Charles de Foucauld (1858-1916)

Imagine a pleasure-loving, indisciplined young aristocrat who was thrown out of the army for insubordination (he insisted on keeping a mistress), explored the Sahara at age 23, and then…fell in love with God. He was fond of food and drink, and his friends in the army called him “piggy.” For one of his birthdays, the drinks were brought in a small truck! He always enjoyed going against orders. No one who knew the young Charles de Foucauld would have predicted what he would become.

Charles walked into a Catholic church one night and asked the priest: Give me the faith. The priest told him to kneel down and confess his sins to God. Charles, who had always done the opposite of what anyone ordered him to, knelt down and made his confession. Then, at the priest’s request, he received Communion.

He was a changed man from that day. He would later say that once he knew God exists, he could not do anything other than live for Him.

He went to the Holy Land. Studied the life of Jesus. Became a Trappist for three years. Left. He did not want the security and safety of the monastery. He wanted to live as Jesus had lived. For this he (a French aristocrat!) became a servant in a convent in Nazareth. Became a priest. Went to Africa, where he lived alone, seeking God. He wanted to develop a form of contemplative life which would proclaim Jesus from the rooftops, but not in words, but by deeds. He was killed by Tuareg rebels.

He died an apparent failure, with nothing accomplished and no followers. Decades later, Fr René Voillaume and four companions went from France to Africa to live the life that Charles de Foucauld had dreamt of. Out of this group would come the Little Brothers of Jesus and the Little Sisters of Jesus.

I found a small community of Little Sisters in Varanasi, just above the shore of the Ganges. I have met the Brothers. They live and work, as Jesus did, among the people, doing the ordinary jobs that most poor people do. Charles de Foucauld had written: “We must respect the least of our brothers and sisters, mingle with them, become one with them.”



Sr Maura Clark, Sr Ita Ford, Sr Dorothy Kazel and Miss Jean Donovan  (+ 1980)

A tragic and heroic story.

They were US citizens who volunteered to work among the poor in El Salvador. The year: 1980. Archbishop Romero had been murdered for speaking up for the poor and for justice. These three Sisters (two Maryknoll nuns and an Ursuline) and their lay helper knew the risk involved in taking a stand for the poor.

They knew the danger. They refused to run away. Just a few days before their violent death, Sr Ita Ford wrote to her family what it means to be poor in El Salvador. It was more than just poverty. It meant you could be kidnapped, tortured and killed. The same fate, they knew, awaited those who worked for the poor.

 Jean Donovan, the lay volunteer, was just twenty-seven, from a rich family, who had completed a business degree. She could not tear herself away from the poor children among whom she worked.

Dorothy and Jean went to pick up Maura and Ita at the airport. They were never seen again. Soldiers dressed as civilians stopped them. Took them away. Raped two of them. Killed them by shooting them in the head. Buried them in a shallow grave. Farmers found the grave, and informed the church authorities. Their bodies were exhumed; that is how the world learnt of the murder.

They did not die for professing the Christian faith in theory. (In fact, those who did the killing in El Salvador considered themselves Christians.) They translated their faith in Jesus into a stand for the poor. That is what led to their slaughter. Those who worship money and power brook no opposition.



St. Ambrose (339-397)

If you had lived in Milan at the time of Ambrose, you would probably have exclaimed: What a man! What an extraordinary bishop!

In fact, the emperor whom Bishop Ambrose confronted for his massacre of innocent citizens, did public penance as Ambrose had told him to. He said this about the fearless bishop: “I know no one who deserves the name of bishop, except Ambrose.”

Who was Ambrose? Why is he so admired?

Son of a high-ranking official in the Roman empire, Ambrose had become governor of Milan, the imperial capital. The local church was strongly divided between Catholics and Arianists (a heretical group). As the two groups met for the election of the new bishop, the strife was so severe, the governor intervened to keep the peace. So impressed was the crowd that they shouted: “Ambrose for bishop!”

Ambrose, totally shocked, tried to run away and hide. When discovered, he finally acquiesced. He was not yet baptized. So, in a few days, he was baptized, confirmed, ordained a priest and made bishop of Milan!

He became a model bishop and a very courageous pastor. He gave away his property, cared for the poor, and studied at night. He learnt the Bible assiduously and became an outstanding preacher. In fact, a still more famous churchman was impressed and influenced by his preaching—St. Augustine.

As for courage, he opposed Emperor Valentinian’s order to hand over a church to a heretical group. Imperial troops surrounded the Cathedral, with Bishop Ambrose and the faithful trapped inside. Ambrose would not compromise his stand, which was: The emperor is in the church, not over it. The emperor yielded.



Bl. Juan Diego

The pictures of Our Lady we are used to seeing, even in India or other Asian countries, are pictures of European women—often friends of the Italian or German or Dutch artists who painted those images. We are so used to seeing such images that we think of Mary as a European woman, which she was not. (The same goes our common portraits of Jesus.)

Have you seen pictures of Our Lady of Guadalupe? She is no European. She has the dark complexion, features and dress of the native Mexicans of the sixteenth century. How did this come about?

It goes back to a poor “Indian” (Native American) of Mexico, who, one day, on his way to church saw a young woman, who asked him to go to the bishop and tell him to build a church. The bishop, of course, refused to take this poor man (Juan Diego) seriously. This happened again, and once again the bishop did not relent. He further told him that he would listen, if the lady gave him a sign.

The sign came during the next visit. The maiden appeared once again to Juan Diego, showed him roses to take to the bishop—it was not a season for roses—and told him to collect them. Juan gathered the roses in his cape, and went to meet the bishop. When he opened his cape to give the roses to the bishop, both found the young woman’s image imprinted on his cape. This is the image venerated as Our Lady of Guadalupe.

A church was built on that spot, and has become a magnet attracting millions of pilgrims.

It was the time of the Spanish conquest of South America. The Spaniards treated the native inhabitants cruelly, despised them, and never saw them as human beings like themselves.

Our Lady appeared to one of the despised “dark” persons, not to a European colonizer. She assumed the appearance of a native woman, not that of the ruling colonizers. She spoke to Juan Diego in his dialect, not in the language of the conquerors (Spanish).

Juan Diego was a weak and frightened man, a nobody in the church or society of the time. Mary would speak to him tenderly, telling him: “Do not be afraid or upset. Am I not here, I who am your mother? Are you not in my lap? Let nothing upset you.”

The Church honours Juan Diego’s memory on this day.

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MARTIN DE PORRES (1579-1639)

The injustice and cruelty meted out to him would have made a lesser man bitter and vindictive. Martin, instead, rose from poverty and humiliation to care for the neediest with love.

Son a Spanish nobleman of Peru, and a freed slave woman of African or local descent, Martin had the features of his mother. His father walked out on the family, leaving the wife to support the family, which she barely managed. He lived in an orphanage for a while, and then was apprenticed to a barber—a profession that included medical work, including minor surgeries. The prevailing laws prevented children of African or native stock from joining religious orders. Martin joined the Dominicans, therefore, not as a professed member, but as someone doing menial work. Later, when he was admitted as a lay brother, a companion called him a mulatto (mixed race) dog, and others ridiculed him as an illegitimate child.

Soon people realized that this Brother was extraordinarily kind and caring, and a very effective and compassionate healer. He would carry very sick people with festering ulcers, place them in his own bed, and care for them. When criticised, he answered: “Compassion is more important than cleanliness.” Once when his superior reprimanded him for bringing in sick people, Martin answered in all simplicity, “Please instruct me. I did not know that the precept of obedience is more important than that of charity.”

Gradually, the criticism and contempt gave way to profound admiration for a holy man of God whose heroic charity seemed to have no limits. People spoke of his miraculous powers—of healing, of bilocation, of reaching the sick although the doors were locked, of getting animals to obey him. By the time he died at age sixty, most people of Lima hailed him as a saint.



RAISSA (1883-1960) AND JACQUES (1882-1973) MARITAIN

Both were brilliant seekers, with a passion for poetry, art and social justice. They met at the University of Paris as young students, fell in love, and married. So keen was their search for meaning that they decided: If we do not find meaningful answers within a year, we will end our lives.

This search led them to philosopher Henri Bergson and to novelist Leon Bloy, through whom they discovered the Catholic faith, and the wisdom of that towering genius, Thomas Aquinas. Jacques would later be known as the most outstanding Catholic lay intellectual of the twentieth century, who would receive from the hands of Pope Paul VI the Vatican II document on the Church in the Modern World.

Raissa, an intellectual and a mystic like her husband, remained more in the background, supporting his work. By mutual consent they took a vow of celibacy, and decided to help each other on their God-search.

Jacques would later be a professor at Princeton University, the French ambassador to the Vatican, and a much-acclaimed intellectual.

Raissa died in 1960. Here is a charming quote from her journals (which show her as a true mystic): “I love the saints because they are so lovable, and the sinners because they are like me.”

She and Jacques had decided that, when one of them died, the other would join religious life. Those who knew them thought Jacques would join one of the more “intellectual” orders. Instead, he joined the Little Brothers of Jesus, and lived with them in a slum near Toulouse, France, until his death in 1973 at age 91. One of the simple convictions of this great intellectual was: “We do not need truths that serve us; we need a truth we can serve.”




On the night of November 15-16, 1989, towards morning, a unit of the Salvadoran army entered the campus of the University of Central America (UCA), found the Jesuits, took them out to the lawn and shot them dead. They murdered also a maid who worked on the campus and her daughter. Why?

Fr Ellicuria and the other Jesuits, in being faithful to the Jesuit Society’s decision to promote a faith that does justice, had spoken up against the structural injustice of Salvadoran society. The military government saw them as the brains behind the uprising of the rebels, and decided to eliminate them.

Father Ellicuria, rector of the University, believed that the university must respect its historical reality, and hence identify the intellectual base of an unjust society that denies rights and freedoms to the majority, educate intellectuals with a conscience, and train them to act ethically. Far from supporting violence, he wanted to bring the warring factions of El Salvador to a common table for discussion. This is not what those in power, and the super-rich whose interests they served, wanted.

” El Salvador’s civil war was brutal…the vast majority of the estimated 75,000 people who died were innocent and unarmed men, women, children, and even infants. Government forces, especially the U.S.-trained Atlacatl battalion, participated in dozens of documented massacres including… the UCA murders. The Commission concluded that the Salvadoran government and military were at fault for 85% of the human rights abuses during the war.” (Matt Cuff, blog on August 20, 2014)



DOROTHY DAY (1897-1980)

When Dorothy Day died in 1980 at age 83, she was perhaps the most admired member of the American Catholic Church.

What a life she had! Born into a middle class family and baptized into the Episcopalian Church, she gave up all religious practice as a young woman. She joined anarchists and communists and found religion as an obstacle to the social change she craved for. She lived with a man she loved, Forster Battingham, and became pregnant.

She also felt herself more and more drawn to prayer, and to the Catholic Church.

She was extremely happy to be pregnant, and even happier after the birth of her daughter, Tamar. She wanted to get Tamar baptized in the Catholic church, but Forster would not hear of it. He was against having children and totally opposed to religious practices. Dorothy realized that she had to choose between her religious faith, which was becoming stronger, and the man she loved, who would leave her if she joined the church.

After much prayer and struggle, she joined the Catholic Church. Forster left her.

A key struggle for her was: How to combine religion with social action for justice? How to bring together love and justice.

With the encouragement of a visiting French thinker called Peter Maurin, Dorothy started a newspaper called The Catholic Worker. To practise the kind of radical faith she wrote about, she started the Catholic Worker Houses, which would welcome the poor. There are 120 such Houses in the US today.

Apart from praying, writing about the poor, Dorothy Day took part in protests and sit-ins, was arrested, watched by the FBI, and even shot at. She had great admirers and staunch critics. Here are some of the convictions that led this passionate woman, who prayed much, took the vows of poverty and chastity, lived among the poor, was fascinated by the spirituality of St. Therese of Lisieux, opposed government policies that seemed to her unjust, and wrote much.

“The greatest challenge of the day is: how to bring about a revolution of the heart, a revolution which has to start with each one of us. When we begin to take the lowest places, to wash the feet of others, to love our brothers with that burning love, that passion which led to the cross, then we can truly say, ‘Now I have begun.’”

“I really only love God as much as I love the person I love the least.”

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Three of Catholicism’s best-loved saints and two others, less well-known, but who paid for their fidelity with their life.

October 1

St. Therese of Lisieux (1873-1897)

When this twenty-four-year-old sister died in a convent in Northern France after much physical suffering, hardly anyone in her community thought of her as exceptional. The superior, who had read the autobiographical account Therese had written under obedience, decided to print a thousand copies of it and pass them around. Several nuns complained, “Who will want to read it?” That book went on to become one of the best-read books of the twentieth century. By 1905—a mere eight years after her death—there were about five hundred letters a day to the Lisieux convent from people who had received favours through her intercession. When some outsiders spoke of proposing her cause for canonization, there were murmurs again, “There was nothing special about her.”

Therese did not see herself as special. She saw her call to holiness as a “Little Way”—a way of complete trust in God and loving surrender to God’s love. In an insight that gave her great enthusiasm and brought meaning to the dull routine of convent life, she wrote, “I have discovered my vocation. At the heart of the Church, my mother, I will be love.”

To be love. Isn’t that what each of us is called to be? No wonder Therese of Lisieux is known and loved all around the world. In addition to being canonized (in record time!), she has been declared a Doctor of the Church.



St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226)

God has his ways. At a time when economic power in Europe was shifting from the landed gentry to the new merchant class, God called the pleasure-loving son of a rich merchant to teach the church the beauty of poverty.

People loved, and still love, this poor man. Thousands of young men joined the Order he started. Little did he know when he heard God’s voice to “build my church,” that he was being asked not simply to repair an old church building, but to renew the Catholic church. He shunned ecclesiastical titles and pomp, and did not even become a priest.

He hardly wrote or held office. He wanted the Gospel to be the rule book for his friars. He suffered much from the Stigmata, which was one more sign of his Christ-like life. He died young.

Today, there are hundreds of religious orders who call themselves “Franciscan.” The Poverello (The Little Poor Man) of Assisi continues to inspire and challenge. Precisely when the pull of power and money becomes a fascination for many, God seems to raise up some unlikely person to show the rest of us what is truly essential and life-giving. For the answers to our hearts’ deepest longings are not found in wealth and power, titles and positions, but in living the Gospel in all its urgent simplicity. No wonder the present Pope, another Francis in name and life-style, has captured the attention of the world.



St Teresa of Avila (1515-82)

She was intelligent, unconventional, practical and charming. When she wrote down her powerful religious experiences, Church authorities could not accept a woman who dared to write and teach.

Capable of deep human love, organization and writing, she was, above all, a genuine lover of God—a God who was very real for her, and with whom she felt free to be herself.

Her first four decades were neither very focussed nor fervent. Then one day, passing in front of a statue of Jesus, she experienced a powerful love for him, with the conviction that she was ready to do anything He asked.

Living in a traditional convent, and disappointed with its spiritual mediocrity and worldliness, she saw the need for reform. She faced stiff opposition in this, just as a younger friend and admirer of hers, St. John of the Cross, did from his friars (who, among other things, imprisoned him).

Teresa was declared a Doctor of the Church. She is acclaimed as a mystical writer whose appeals goes well beyond the confines of Christianity. Edith Stein, in her atheistic adolescence, was changed when she read Teresa’s writings—and became a Catholic.

Faced with opposition from outside and inside the church, travelling in discomfort, struggling to give wise guidance to her sisters, Teresa found serenity and inner strength in the One she loved and trusted. Her summary of that core belief is well known:

“Let nothing disturb you. Let nothing upset you. The one who has God, has everything. God alone is enough.”


October 20

Blessed Jerzy Popieluszko (1947-84)

Physically frail, but strong in character, young Jerzy grew up in Communist Poland. He was ridiculed by his companions for wanting to join the seminary. During his compulsory military training, when he refused to crush his rosary with his heal, he was beaten up and kept in solitary confinement. For not removing the medal around his neck, he was made to stand for hours in the freezing rain.

As a young priest, he volunteered to say Mass for the striking workers. The police kept track of his activities and called him thirteen times for interrogation.

Once, while imprisoned with hardened criminals, he spent a whole night talking to a murderer, who ended up making his confession to Fr Jerzy.

Since he spoke openly and drew large crowds, the Communist regime decided to get rid of him. A group from the military caught him while he was travelling, beat him up, stuffed him in the car boot, took him out again, thrashed him beyond recognition, tied him up, attached weights to his body and drowned him. He was thirty-seven when he died.

In his last public talk, given on October 19, 1984, Fr Jerzy had said: “In order to defeat evil with good, in order to preserve the dignity of man, one must not use violence. It is the person who has failed to win on the strength of his heart and his reason, who tries to win by force…Let us pray that we be free from fear and intimidation, but above all from the lusts for revenge and violence.”


October 25

St. Edmund Campion (1540-81)

A brilliant young scholar at Oxford University, he was also a powerful orator. He seemed cut out for a great career—in the world or in the church. But his studies convinced him of the truth of the Catholic faith. Becoming a Catholic would mean the end of good career and possibly the loss of one’s life.

Campion went to France, became a Catholic, and proceeded to join the Society of Jesus. He was then sent to England—a very dangerous mission. He wrote about the faith, and friends published his writing in book form, which made him the most famous Catholic in England—someone the government wanted to eliminate.

Campion was arrested and tortured. He was called before the Queen, whom he had seen at Oxford. As a student, he had given a speech in her honour. She promised to free him from jail, if he would become a Protestant minister. He refused. He was sent back to jail, and later executed. His trial was a sham, and the charges trumped up. A genius, gifted with a charming personality and great writing and speaking skills, Campion put his faith first, and paid for his fidelity with his life.

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This month we look at four lay professionals—a doctor (and polymath), an economist, a professor and a diplomat—whose lives shine as models of humanity. Their death anniversaries occur in September.

September 4

Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965)

Think of an extraordinarily gifted man living at the border of France and Germany. He was not just a theologian and preacher. His book, The Quest for the Historical Jesus, became a landmark that challenged and changed the way scholars approached the subject.

He was not only an organist, but also the greatest authority on the German composer Bach. His book on Bach became a classic. He also wrote about the construction of pipe organs that influenced that field.

Unusually famous in two separate disciplines—theology and music—he decided to quit both!

At age thirty, against the protests of family members and friends who thought him mad, he resigned his professorship and joined the university as a student of medicine! Why? To go to a remote corner of Africa and work as a doctor. He convinced his fiancée of the correctness of his decision, and she studied anesthesia, and later worked with him.

The Paris missionary society did not accept him for work in Africa, considering his theological views unorthodox. So, he raised money to build a hospital.

He went to Lambaréné, in what is now Gabon. Reaching there meant fourteen days of travel by canoe from the port.

He set up a rudimentary hospital, and treated all sorts of diseases.

He was also deeply critical of colonization and the injustices the colonizing European powers had committed against the colonized people. He saw Africans as his brothers and sisters, a very unusual attitude for a European of those days.

Slowly, the world noticed the extraordinary vision and work of this man who shunned comfort and fame and buried himself in an unknown and miserably deprived part of the world. Honours followed, including the Nobel Peace Prize. His acceptance speech is considered one of the most moving. He spoke much on the respect for life, and against nuclear arms.

Schweitzer died in his beloved Lambaréné hospital in 1965.


September 7

E.F. Schumacher (1911-1977)

Have you heard the expression, “Small is beautiful”? Well, that was the title of Schumacher’s first book. Its subtitle reveals his greatest concern: “Economics as if people mattered.” He argued for an economics that would put human beings and not material wealth first. He was convinced that our mindless search for ever-increasing wealth was destructive. Money alone would not satisfy the desires of the human heart. This book was rated as one of the hundred most influential books published since World War II.

A convinced atheist when he was young, he was later drawn to religion. He admired Buddhism, but, influenced by the intellectual vigour of Thomas Aquinas’s thought and the mystical writings of Teresa of Avila and Thomas Merton, he became a Catholic. He saw how his human concerns in economics were found in the Papal encyclicals on social themes.

At a time when the most influential thinking in economics was “the bigger, the better,” Schumacher has the wisdom and the courage to think differently—as if people at all levels really mattered.


September 8

Frederic Ozanam (1813-1853)

Here was a laymen with doctorates in law and economics, a popular professor in Paris, who was distressed by the plight of the poor and the church’s distance from modernity. The French Revolution had spoken of “liberty, fraternity, equality,” but not much fraternity or equality existed between the rich and the poor. The church, in its concern for orthodoxy, seemed to side with the rich.

Thus, when Ozanam started his studies at the university of Paris, he was shocked to the see the bitter enmity of many towards the church. People wanted not arguments and nice theories, but action.

So, Ozanam and a few friends started visiting the poor in the miserable slums in which they lived in utter squalor. They would help them out of the personal sacrifices they had made. Thus was born The Saint Vincent de Paul Society, found now in most Catholic parishes all over the world.

When he raised issues critical of the church and of the establishment, he met with strong opposition. Ozanam was convinced that a society made up a few who have too much and a vast majority who have too little cannot survive. The violent clashes he had predicted occurred in 1848.

The church’s social encyclicals and European governments showing active concern for their poorer citizens would come later. Frederic Ozanam was a pioneer ahead of his times, who paid for his views by facing criticism and isolation. Broken in health, he died at the age of forty.


September 18

Dag Hammarskjöld (1905-1961)

When Dag Hammarskjőld, UN Secretary General, died in an air crash in 1961, they found a manuscript in his house, with this letter: “Perhaps you may remember that I once told you that, in spite of everything, I kept a diary which I wanted you to take charge of someday…These entries provide the only true “profile” that can be drawn…a sort of white book concerning my negotiations with myself—and with God.”

One surprising feature of the diary is that nothing of Hammarskjőld’s brilliant and very public career, or of the tremendous admiration others had for him, appears anywhere. In fact, even his closest friends had no idea that Dag had this “mystical” journey. They knew him as someone who was “true in word and act…very brilliant, orderly, pragmatic and subtle, …capable of lightning speed in both comprehension and construction, yet strictly disciplined.”

No one knew that this brilliant and famous diplomat was, at heart, a deep mystic. His diary, published under the title, Markings, took the world by storm. Here a couple of quotes. We shall see more of them in another issue of MAGNET.

The more faithfully you listen to the voice within you, the better you will hear what is sounding outside.  And only he who listens can speak.

God does not die on the day when we cease to believe in a personal deity, but we die on the day when our lives cease to be illumined by the steady radiance, renewed daily, of a wonder, the source of which is beyond all reason.

For all that has been—Thanks! To all that shall be—Yes!

The diary of this wise, good and brilliant man makes us aware that there are, unknown to us,   many mystics and saints around us.  People are not what they appear to be.

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The Best Among Us


Here are four inspiring human beings who displayed an exceptional dose of humanity, wisdom and goodness. Their death anniversaries occur this month.

Some years ago, the British Council Library in London organized an unusual exhibition—on the contribution of the Benedictines to European civilization. Unusual, to say the least, for a very secular organization to highlight the contribution of a Catholic monastic order.

The fact is: The monastic tradition that goes back to Benedict did much to promote civilization. They copied manuscripts and built up libraries. Monasteries became centres of education and learning.

In a culture that despised manual labour (and relegated it to serfs, who were semi-slaves), the monks engaged in manual labour. They tilled the land, cultivated food, invented medicines.

At a time of strict social hierarchy, monasteries promoted equality. All monks were treated as equals, whether they came from the land-owning classes or from serfs.

All this was revolutionary for the time.

It was the result of the spiritual quest of one man—Benedict of Nurcia. As a young man, put off by the worldliness of his peers, he became a solitary and lived alone. Others sought him out, and asked for his guidance. This is how the Benedictine monastic tradition started. As a help for his monks, he wrote a simple Rule, which became a classic—Regula Sancti Benedicti (St. Benedict’s Rule).

According to Benedict, the monks were to live in community, not alone. They prayed together, worked together, interacted. Benedict did not believe in extraordinary physical penances or deprivations, but in a life of moderation.

Such seekers needed wise guidance. Hence the crucial role of the abbot, who was expected to be strict and caring, wise and open to others’ ideas. In fact, knowing how the vow of obedience could be misused by a callous superior, Benedict warned that, if an abbot imposed on the monks what he wanted rather than what God wanted, he would go to hell!

The monks taught Europe to combine prayer and work, silence and activity, intellectual pursuits and manual labour. That remains relevant even today—in any culture.


Imagine a giant of a man—six feet six inches in height—a former solider with a notorious bad temper and addicted to gambling who said he wanted to look after the sick. He did work hard, but his fierce temper made those in charge of the hospital dismiss him. I remember a radio play on him in which his military superior tells him, “The best favour you can do us is to go and join the enemy.” Gambling led to his losing all his possessions. An unlikely candidate for sainthood, right?

Further, he suffered from a very painful and disfiguring wound on his leg most of his life. He set up a group of men who were interested in looking after the sick, and treating patients as human beings. You may ask what is so novel about that. The novelty was remarkable, for the way sick people were treated in those days ranged from bad to awful. Caring for the sick, especially in times of the dreaded plague, was not a work normal people wanted. So, criminals were roped in to do the work.

Camillus would go to the hovels of the poor to find the sick and treat them. His men looked after wounded soldiers on battlefields. In fact, the large red cross on the Camillian habit was the forerunner of the now famous Red Cross. A number of his companions died of contagious diseases contracted while caring for the sick.

A religious experience attributed to Camilllus was a message Christ gave him from a crucifix in Rome: “Why are you afraid? Do you not realize that this is not your work but mine?”

Inspired by the same Lord, a laudable initiative his followers—the Camillian Fathers—have done in India is to work for AIDS patients, and to train others in this work.


An unusual man who lived in unusual times.

The setting: The Spanish conquest and colonization of South America. The original inhabitants were seen by the conquering Spaniards as less than human, with no rights. The majority of them died, through ill-treatment and disease brought in by the colonizers.

De La Casas was a Spaniard, who at first benefited from the racial oppression of the natives. He later became a priest and worked in Latin America. As a Spaniard, he was given an “encomienda” (an estate) with gold and slaves.

He saw more and more clearly that, while the church preached the Gospel to the local people, the colonizers’ main motivating force was greed. They were not after souls, but gold. He started criticising the cruel practices of his countrymen towards the “Indian” populations—a stand that won him many enemies.

Later, he joined the Dominican order. His opposition to the cruel treatment of the natives became stronger. He pleaded with the Spanish government to see the Indians as human beings with their own rights. In this sense, he is considered a pioneer of human rights. In fact, he engaged in debates with another Spanish theologian who held that the Indians were not fully human.

Partly to get rid of him, the church made him bishop of Chiapas in Mexico. There, a number of Spanish Catholics turned against him, when he insisted that priests should withhold absolution from anyone who did not free his slaves. He went back to Spain, where he continued his struggle for the rights of the conquered peoples, who were seen by many of his countrymen—including church officials—as less than human.

In the sad and cruel combination of the merchant-military-missionary thrust into non-European cultures, the colonizers displayed exceptional greed, cruelty and racial bigotry. Bartolomé de las Casas was a courageous and noble exception—a prophet ahead of his times.


What can a Salesian—who has had a number of Jesuit professors, colleagues, students and close friends—write about this well-known saint?

One: That Ignatius practised and taught a “worldly spirituality”—not one of withdrawal from the world, but of “finding God in all things.” Thus, the sons of Ignatius have included outstanding teachers, writers, scientists, college administrators, and, of course, missionaries and martyrs.

Two: That the best we can do with our life is to find out what God wants of each of us, and do it generously. This process, called “discernment,” is a gift of God to the church through Ignatius and the Jesuits. The Ignatian “spiritual exercises” are meant to help the retreatant to go through this process. As a famous Jesuit scholar, Karl Rahner, would say, all this theology flowed out of his experience of the Spiritual Exercises.

Three: A saying of Ignatius that I love: Opus divinum, quo universalius, eo divinius. A loose translation would be: “In working for God, the more universal a task is, the more divine it is.” A great antidote to petty interests and narrowness of mind. Right from the beginning, Ignatius, like other great founders, sent his brother religious to distant missions and faraway cultures.

Four: Ignatius’ heart was in the right place—keen on seeking God alone. Hence his famous prayer (called Suscipe in Latin): “Take, Lord, and receive all my liberty, my memory, my understanding, and my entire will, all I have and call my own. You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it. Everything is yours; do with it what you will. Give me only your love and your grace, that is enough for me.”

May that be enough for each of us, too.

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The Best Among Us


Here are four inspiring human beings who displayed an exceptional dose of humanity, wisdom and goodness. Their death anniversaries occur this month.

People referred to him simply as “Good Pope John.” When he died on June 3, 1963, a newspaper published a drawing of the earth in mourning, with the caption, “A death in the family.”

How did Pope John conquer the hearts of so many people—both inside and outside the church?

When he was elected Pope, at age 76, several “experts” saw him simply as a transitional pope. He had not held any key office in the curia. He was the third of thirteen children of a poor farmer in a North Italian village. He had been posted in faraway places.

But, wherever he was posted, he went obediently, related to people, and won the confidence of other Christians and persons of different faiths.

His unexpected decisions were revolutionary: the first Synod in the diocese of Rome; the Second Vatican Council; appointment of a delegate to the World Council of Churches; receiving Kruschev’s daughter and son-in-law in private audience.

At the Council, where he spoke little, he insisted that better results are achieved through mercy than through condemnations. He insisted that the church needed updating, and greater openness to the modern world. He said publicly that he did not agree with the “prophets of doom,” who saw everything in the world with suspicion and fear.

People—both within and outside the Church—warmed up to his evident goodness and transparency. When, for instance, he went to the Central Jail in Rome and spoke to the prisoners, he put aside the prepared text, and spoke from the heart, “I am John, your brother,” he told the prisoners. “I place my heart near your heart.” Hardened prisoners wept.

So did the world when he died.


Who has not heard of Anne Frank and her diary!

Anne was the daughter of Otto Frank, a well-to-do Jewish businessman from Frankfurt. When the family saw the growing attacks on Jews in Germany, they moved to Amsterdam in Holland, where they felt free.

But the situation changed in 1942, when all Jews were asked to report to the Nazi centres. The family then went into hiding in a little “annexe” to a building, where they lived in secret. Friends supplied them food. It is in this claustrophobic setting that Anne, then thirteen years old, started writing her diary.

Despite the violence and despair in the world outside, and the cramped, damp, uncomfortable conditions within their little box of a house, Anne wrote with optimism and hope, even humour.

The Frank family lived in the annexe from 1942 until 1944, when their hiding place was betrayed to the Nazi authorities. The family was arrested and sent to Nazi concentration camps, where men and women were separated. The mother died first. Anne and her sister died later, in another camp. Otto, the father, survived, and went to Amsterdam, where a friend of theirs had kept Anne’s diary. Published under the title, The Diary of a Young Girl, it has been translated

into sixty-seven languages.

The diary reveals Anne’s extraordinary capacity to find hope and courage even in the most trying circumstances, and to believe in love in the face of virulent hatred. As she wrote on July 15, 1944: “I see the world being slowly transformed into a wilderness; I hear the approaching thunder that, one day, will destroy us too. I feel the suffering of millions. And yet, when I look up at the sky, I somehow feel that everything will change for the better, that this cruelty too shall end, that peace and tranquility will return once more.”

Anne Frank was also able to write this sentence, “In spite of everything, I still believe that people are really good at heart.”


Thomas More had everything a man can wish for: intelligence, education, influence, a loving family, an enviable career, and deep religious faith.

He was head of his time. At a time when women were not sent for higher education, he educated his daughters in Greek and Latin, and their erudition impressed scholars. He was an affectionate father, who wrote loving letters to his family when he was away from home.

More held the highest office in the land: Chancellor of England. But he would not compromise on matters of conscience. When King Henry VIII wanted to divorce his legally wedded wife and marry another, and declared himself head of the church in England, More would not agree. For this “crime,” he was arrested, jailed and beheaded.

Even at his execution, More did not lose his composure nor his sense of humour. Weakened by the cold, hunger and dirt of the prison, he struggled to climb the steps to the scaffold where he was to be beheaded. He said to the official, “I pray you, Mr Lieutenant, see me safe up;  and for my coming down, I can shift for myself”; while on the scaffold he declared that he died “the king’s good servant, and God’s first.”


Sundar Singh was born into a rich Sikh family. His mother, a very devout Sikh, made him learn the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit by the time he was seven. She took him to a guru for his guidance, and enrolled him in a mission school so that he could learn English.

His loving mother’s death when he was fourteen made Sundar lose his moorings. He lost interest in religion, and was particularly spiteful of Christianity. One day, he burnt the whole Bible in front of friends. Desperate, he decided one night to commit suicide by throwing himself in front of a train, unless God answered him.

The answer came—in a totally unexpected way. At night, a light filled his room. Jesus appeared to him, and asked him, “Why do you persecute me? I died for you.”

When Sundar told his father about this, and his decision to become a Christian, the father was aghast. Words and threats did not work. Finally the father formally rejected Sundar as his son.

Sundar Singh now was on his own, literally on the streets—like his Master.

Dressed as a sadhu, he travelled around, speaking about Jesus. He won admirers and bitter enemies. In one incident, his enemies threw him into a dry well where others had perished, and left him there to die. Three days later, a rope was lowered, and he came out, but did not find anyone around.

He was disappointed with the materialism of the Western world, and their ignorance of other cultures. He found it utterly patronizing that they referred to persons like his mother as “pagans.” He found her a better person than most Christians he got to know.

He taught people in simple home-spun images taken from their background, as Jesus did. Here is one example:

“For the first two or three years after my conversion, I used to ask for specific things. Now I ask for God. Supposing there is a tree full of fruits — you will have to go and buy or beg the fruits from the owner of the tree…But if you can make the tree your own property, then all the fruits will be your own. In the same way, if God is your own, then all things in Heaven and on earth will be your own, because He is your Father and is everything to you; otherwise you will have to go and ask like a beggar for certain things…So ask not for gifts but for the Giver of Gifts: not for life but for the Giver of Life.”

His death is shrouded in mystery. He decided to travel to Tibet, where he had received much ill-treatment earlier. He walked into the hills, with many other pilgrims going to Hindu shrines. He was never seen again. No one knows whether he died by accident or illness or was killed. But his memory lives on.

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