Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Readings pose a particular - and personal - challenge

This weekend, I have the privilege of serving as a Mission Ambassador at Masses in Holland Park and Mt Gravatt.

Good evening and thank you for the opportunity to be a part of your worship celebrations, as a community, tonight/today.

Three housekeeping matters, before I begin:

1) Firstly, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this area and pay respect to our indigenous brothers and sisters;
2) Secondly, I would ask, right now, that you please take up one of the envelopes that are placed in each pew, as I am going to be referring to this regularly during my talk. Have a quick look at it and you will note, I hope, the strong indigenous 'flavour', or 'feel', to the way the envelope looks and also the actual content contained on it.
3) My final housekeeping matter is perhaps the most important and that's to say "THANKYOU" for the support you have given to Catholic Mission in the past. Whether it be through our annual appeals, or as a regular donor, we - and the people we serve - are extremely grateful.

To be among you tonight is actually quite challenging for me. Tonight/today's Gospel, with its focus on the death - and resurrection - of the 12-year-old daughter of Jairus is extremely poignant. I will explain why shortly. But let me ask, at this point, in time, if all those who are parents could raise their hands: as I suspected, it is many of us here tonight who have experienced the joys and no doubt challenges of parenthood. I hope you will feel a certain sense of solidarity with some of the stories I share with you tonight.

The second reading proclaimed by (insert name of reader) is such a great text for us to hear on this weekend when Catholic Mission is conducting its annual appeal. There is so much in it that is relevant to the message I want to leave with you today/tonight. Writing to the church in Corinth, St Paul reminds them that with the same spirit of generosity shown by Jesus - who laid down his life for us all - so they need to be generous to those less fortunate. This is part of their mission as a community of believers.

But the other mission that they also have to bear in mind is the call to look after each other. He writes: "This does not mean that to give relief to others you ought to make things difficult for yourselves". It is a question, Paul says, of balance: their surplus against the needs of those around them. So my first message to you all is the same message I would say to any donors: "please consider your particular circumstances - as a couple, as a family, as an individual - and then give generously, from your own surplus.

In saying this, however, I am not saying 'don't give'. Nor am I saying that the need is not great. And I am definitely not saying that you should give simply because there is someone less fortunate. I am not here tonight asking for charity. Far from it. Instead, I am asking you to join with all those who are putting their faith into practice, as missionaries, and whose own lives are being enriched by their experiences of serving others, either at home or overseas.

Let me explain: anyone who is a Vincentian and who does visitation work on a regular basis, or anyone who has done any sort of outreach or volunteer work will tell you that, often, through their experiences, their life is enriched by the people they encounter. Missionaries over the years write and speak of this experience as well. It is the realisation that comes when we understand that while we might be engaging in mission to others, it is those others who impact and affect us as well. This is the essence of the Christian Gospel and it is what is meant by our appeal slogan "Our salvation is bound together". Paul reminds us of this when he writes, again in the second reading, "one day, those in need may have something to spare that will supply your own need".

So my second message to you tonight/today is: do not think of the people I now tell you about as in need of charity. Yes, their circumstances are difficult, at times even life-threatening. But all the people Catholic Mission helps in more 180 countries around the world, and across Australia, are worthy of help simply because they, like us, are made in the image of God. People like Sr Barbara Tippolay, and those they work with, deserve our support simply because they are doing what we cannot do, but which we recognise as being important towards building the Kingdom of God.

Sr Barbara Tippolay lives and works in a remote community on the Tiwi Islands, just north of Darwin. After many years serving others in PNG, Sister Barbara felt called to bring healing into her own community.

As a child, Sr Barbara was raised at Garden Point Mission on Melville Island. As she became a teenager, she found herself assuming responsibility for looking after some of the smaller children in the community.

She then went on to work as a teacher in Papua New Guinea and ultimately became Superior General for her congregation, The Handmaids of Our Lord. Since coming back to the Tiwi Islands, she co-ordinates a Women's Centre, where she encourages local women to share their creative talents. This poster and the envelope you have in your hand (hold up poster and envelope) each contain elements of some of the art work produced by one of those women and Catholic Mission is grateful to have been given permission to use it in our appeal materials.

Sr Barbara is a living example of someone who seeks to bring the Good News message of hope and reconciliation to those around her. Working with the women, on various textiles projects and engaging in regular dialogue and discussion, Sr Barbara has created a space where her fellow Tiwi Islanders can share the stories of their history and of their family life and also of their struggles with issues such as domestic violence and suicide.

The sisters are often stretched for resources. To help with their work, they do their own fundraising by baking cakes and selling them to locals. Sometimes, they have to deal with the reality of people, who are desperate, being found asleep on their front steps.

Like the psalmist who says he will declare his gratitude to God forever, so Sr Barbara - and the many thousands of missionaries like her - are grateful for the support people like you here tonight/today, provide.

Before I reflect on tonight's/today's Gospel, and its significance to me, let me tell you briefly about Catholic Mission itself. Firstly, we are not an agency that has occasional contact with the Catholic Church; we are very much embedded in the Church itself. We are the official aid agency of the Pope and have been supporting the church in more than 160 countries for over 185 years.

Secondly, we structure our work through three different Societies, each of which has a particular focus or mandate: there is the Society for the Propagation of the Faith, which allows donors to support the work of the Church across different communities; this includes the Home Mission Fund, which has been set up by the Catholic Church in Australia to support, through a 30 per cent allocation of funds raised through our church appeals, the church's work in remote, poor and indigenous communities, in Australia. Our work with our indigenous brothers and sisters is, as you can tell from the story of Sr Barbara, just as important and just as powerful an example of mission work as what occurs overseas.

The second Society is the Children's Mission Society. This allows donors to support the church's work with children. Significantly, we do not look to support one-on-one relationships, through child sponsorship, but rather we facilitate the support of whole communities of young children and teenagers, through this program. I will have some brochures with me at the end of Mass for anyone who would like to know more about supporting this particular ministry.

Finally, there is the Society of St Peter Apostle. This is a program that gives donors the chance to support the church's work of training and equipping future leaders, such as priests and religious, to serve communities in their place of birth.

This is who we are, as an organisation. The funds are dispersed in a very democratic way in that each year, National Directors from each country's version of Catholic Mission gather to see how much money has been raised. They then look at the various applications for funding that have been submitted, from each diocese across the globe, and make decisions about which projects or ministries can be supported. It is very much the local church putting forward ideas for enriching, or bringing life, to the people it is serving at a grassroots level. We, as Catholic Mission in Australia, do not impose or tell people like Sr Barbara where and how to spend any money they might receive. This is a powerful model and one which helps ensure accountability to our different stakeholders, especially our donors.

Now, I have hinted that today's Gospel and the first reading, both of which focus on the topic of death, provided me with some significant emotional and intellectual challenges. One of the reasons I say this is because the reality for many of the children we support, and for many of those in countries where the church is at work, is that death is always present! If we - Catholic Mission - is to truly live out its mission statement of "Life to the full", we must continue to call upon the people of Australia, to support our work.

Another reason why I have been confronted by the content of today's readings is that during the week I heard that some friends of our's had lost their 5-year-old daughter. She had been sick for many months and had spent the past several months virtually confined to a hospital bed, in a room of the Paterson Ward at the Royal Children's Hospital. She had not been expected to see her fifth birthday...but she did…and then, somehow, against the odds, the days kept rolling on! Her parents stayed by her bedside, day and night, waiting for the moment when they would finally have to say 'goodbye'. That moment came last Wednesday morning, at 1.24am. For this little girl's parents, there was to be no miraculous recovery like we hear about with the daughter of Jairus.

I know so much about this family's journey because my wife and I have walked the same path. With our son Brodie, we have spent many months, in another room, just down the hall in the same hospital. Brodie's situation is not terminal but it is certainly chronic and we have been told, as recently as this week, that unless a miracle occurs, we can only expect to have him with us for "months or years but definitely not decades".

I mention the stories of these two children because I have to come to realise that, when all is said and done, what our faith is all about is that we are all engaged in Mission. Since assuming the role of Director, I have come to passionately believe that whatever we do as Christians - in relationships, in our professional lives, in our extra-curricular activities - we are engaging in Mission. As a father, I have come to appreciate, as Jairus did, that my mission is to care for, role model and hopefully, instill in Brodie a knowledge that he is indeed loved by God. As a husband, I have learnt that my mission is to love and support Celena, even when it may not be the most exciting option to do so. As an employee, my mission is to act justly, to walk humbly and to love those around me, with tenderness and compassion.

Each of us here tonight/today are engaged in Mission. But there are some who undertake missionary work in foreign lands or locations removed from where they grew up. It is those we support through Catholic Mission and it is those we ask you to think about, pray about and, most importantly, contribute to tonight/today.

I share about my son and the daughter of our friends because it reminds me of why I am working for Catholic Mission. We have access to medical professionals and a whole range of resources, simply because of where we live. But many of those we support – in the orphanages of Africa or the schools of India – do not have the same opportunities.

My call to each of you here tonight/today is two-fold: celebrate your own missionary calling, whatever and however that may be; and please give generously so that parents who struggle to feed, clothe or keep their children healthy do not have to experience the heartache and loss that comes when a son or daughter dies.

If I could ask that you now take your envelope, and a pencil or pen, and make a contribution appropriate to your circumstances and ability to give.

If you are wondering about what is an appropriate gift, I draw your attention to the inside flap of the envelope, which lists how certain amounts could be used in communities across the world.

(Pause to give people time to fill out envelopes)
As we move into the celebration of our Eucharist, I would like to thank Sr Kari for giving me permission to share with you tonight. It is a privilege that Catholic Mission does not take for granted. Thank you Sister.

Finally, I would like to thank you: for your attention as I have spoken, for your interest in the work of Catholic Mission, and, most significantly tonight/today, for your financial generosity. I pray God will richly bless you all and look forward to being part of your community again in the future.

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