Grace to you!
A fair portion of the success of evangelization in the southeast of Nigeria was the sacrifice of missionaries from Ireland and France. They came to Onitsha, across and beyond the River Niger in the second half of the 19th century. To be precise, the French Catholic priest Fr. Lutz led the team in 1885. They saw the needs of the people. They noticed they couldn’t read or write. They knew that the inability to read or write wouldn’t equip the natives for the future. So, they focused on education. They believed that with education, the native people could have better opportunities.
Next, they saw the health condition of the citizens. They invested in providing basic health care. They set up clinics and later hospitals. They started to fight poverty. They knew in their bones that if one has not satisfied the basic necessities of life, it could be a hindrance to the joyful experience of the gospel. The missionaries invested in programs that would make food and clean water more available to those who were poor. They offered so much.
Meanwhile, some other missionaries were carrying their Bible and preaching the fast. They quoted various verses of Scripture but offered little, if any, concrete charitable services to the community. Why preach fast to a people whose lives were routine fasting? Why preach abstinence from fat and meat and dietary needs to a people who have no meat at all to eat? This strategy failed woefully in eastern Nigeria. It fails everywhere.
On the other hand, the delegation of Fr. Lutz and others who followed in his footsteps was very successful. The result was infectious. Despite the challenges, the natives realized that this crop of missionaries wasn't like the rest. They saw they hadn’t come to take but to give. They saw, they prayed like never before, and got their feet wet too in serving the poor in the community. The outpouring of their hearts to the natives was palpable. It wasn't long before large numbers of people started to congregate in the corners of the church huts. Then, they began to learn the Bible and the Catechism. The result was the fast growth of the Church in eastern Nigeria. One hundred thirty-five years later, millions profess the one true faith.
To be sure, the Church in eastern Nigeria isn’t perfect. No particular Church is. But the growth of the faith is mind-blowing.
During the early days of Christian life in Onitsha, where I learned Catechism like any other kid, the faith was always tied to the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. We knew them by heart. It was drilled into us that faith without good works is dead. We were taught to pray and work. Social justice wasn't a new gospel. It was an integral aspect of the gospel. It wasn't social gospel versus praying gospel. It was and is still both. We were taught to profess our faith and lift the burdens of the poor as well. We were taught to spend hours in the adoration chapel and hours serving food and clothing to the poor. It wasn’t the church of the chapel adorers versus the church of the social justice advocates. It was both.
It wasn't anything new. Neither is it something novel. In the Prophecy of Isaiah, the Lord rejects ostentatious piety. It lacks the core ingredients of charity in action. We learn from the Prophecy of Isaiah what true fasting, and by extension, true religion, is. It is to share our bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into our house. It is also to clothe the naked and not to avoid the needy in our midst. It is also to pour oneself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted (Is 57:7, 10).
The Lord tells us that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Mt 5:13-16). These are metaphors. Yet, they have a much deeper meaning. As salt, we are what makes things of taste, good. We serve as preservatives to the good things the Creator has bequeathed the world too. Well, these—taste and preservative roles—are the most common understanding of the salt. For the snowy cities, salt could serve the role of defrosting the ice; yet, it may also serve the role of damaging the roads. There are numerous other ways of looking at it. It could speak to that condition in which we are unnoticed and yet make things taste good. It could be becoming that which melts and permeates into the fabric of society with the warmth of our love. Of all food ingredients, salt is about the fastest to dissolve. It dissolves completely. No one sees it, yet it impacts everything else in the soup.
It is so with anyone born anew in Christ. We become that unassuming and unnoticed ingredient that holds the world in good taste. In our prayer and our social justice works, we carry the heart of true love and hands of pure love. We pour ourselves. We daily die so those around us may live well. None pretentious self-emptying is part of who we are as believers.
Such is light too. Natural light is everywhere but seems nowhere. Except for artificial lights or bulbs, you notice that nobody points to it, yet it is everywhere. Sometimes, people don't notice, but the impact is everywhere. Have you ever walked out on a bright day and paid attention to the sun? You walk in the light. It shines. It permeates. You enjoy its rays while it goes unannounced. So is the life of a true believer.
How is this possible? It is when our religious devotions are grounded in sensitivity to the ethical demands and needs around us. It is when we don't just say things, we do them. It is when we realized that one life, we positively impact is worth much more than all the prayers and fasting, that we load up. It is when we shine because Christ lives in us. And like Christ, we live and move and shine. It isn't merely our devotions and prayers that shine. It is everything we do, even our constant commitment to serve and give to charity.
Faith without good work is simply dead (Jas 2:17). As the Jewish Biblical scholar Michael Fishbane (2002) notes, "Ritual must be grounded in moral sensibility and action” (Haftarot, p. 393).
I am praying for the grace to pour ourselves out for the good of those around us, for it is in dying that we find life.
God love you. God bless you.
[5th Sunday A: Is 58:7-10; 1 Cor 2:1-5; Mt 5:13-16. Image source. Cathopic.com]
Grace to you!
Today, the Catholic Church celebrates All Souls. It’s a day we remember and pray in a special way for all the faithful who have passed; those who died marked with the sign of faith. We, as believers, want to keep the memory of those people and to connect spiritually with them while asking for God’s grace of mercy and purification on their behalf.
During yesterday’s reflection, I shared some thoughts about All Saints, those who are already in heaven. I also echoed the Church’s teaching that believers on earth are in spiritual communion with those in heaven (Church Triumphant), and those who have died, en route to heaven, those under the purifying grace and mercy of God – what we Catholics call Purgatory. So the feast of All Saints makes our celebration of the cycle of this spiritual relationship complete.
The cycle is a memory, a spiritual connection between the Saints on earth, the Saints in heaven, and the dead Saints in transit. Should we lose memories of those souls? Is it out of order to connect with them? Definitely not.
Actually, praying for the dead is biblical and consistent with Judeo-Christian Theology. 2 Maccabees 12 talks about sacrifice offerings for the dead so God will show them mercy. Though Protestants reject the canonicity of this book as part of the bible, it is an authentic Jewish historical book. For us Catholics, it is part of the Bible.
Purgatory is a colorful concept derived from the Latin word Purgare (purgatorius, purgatorium)—which means, “to purify” (purifying). So, the Church believes that at death, when no one else could help oneself, the grace of God, the grace of purification takes over. Analogical to Pauline teaching about judgment and the purification by fire which some would pass before they are saved (I Corinthians 3:11-15), purgatory reflects that experience of purification by fire.
Thus, Purgatory is not a place like a safe-house after death or a location somewhere in the space where souls are kept waiting for heaven; instead, it is a spiritual state during which divine purification (thanks to the grace and mercy of God) cleanses a soul, making the person holy for God; a purification without which the person can’t see God. Remember that the Bible says nothing unholy [impure] can enter heaven (Revelation 21:27).
Why do we pray for the dead over and over again? Isn’t one prayer or one Mass enough?
I recall when I argued with my Mom, (forgive me, it isn’t the right thing to do) about praying for a sick person in the hospital. She wanted more and more prayers offered for that woman. Whereas I thought, Mom, I have prayed enough for this. She advised me that I couldn’t pray enough; no prayer is wasted. See in that story an imagery similar to our usual understanding of the value of prayer.
We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper and the Lord Jesus Christ wants us to share in the spiritual wellbeing of the saints. Our prayers for the dead are our Christian sacrificial offerings on their behalf. God listens. Graces overflow because of the prayer of the saints as well.
God has given us the privilege to be part of the grace-moment for the saints. Our prayers could do that miracle of saving a soul. Who would not love to be associated with being part of the heaven-story, of final homecoming of the dead? I would.
Moreover, we pray for them so we may have peace with the situation. Praying for the dead brings closure to them, as well as to us. It helps them as it helps us. After praying for the repose of my loved ones, I feel peace within my soul, which assures me I am doing the right thing. This is not some mere emotional satisfaction, it happens deep within the soul and I know it.
When my youngest brother died, I had peace with his death after I offered nine days Mass intention for his soul. There are many testimonies like this and tons of books written about testimonies concerning prayer for souls in Purgatory.
Since we do not know who is in heaven and who is not, except the canonized Saints; and since we do not know how long it takes from the last hours of purification to glory—in eternity, there is no time and space—let’s be generous with our prayers. Remember, after death, there is no more concept of time, we belong to eternity where there is no morning or night, and before the Lord, the bible says, a thousand years is like yesterday come and gone (Psalm 90:4).
Let’s keep the prayers coming for the souls in the state of purification. Keep in mind that no prayer offered in memory of our loved ones is a waste. Those prayers help us. They help our departed brothers and sisters. They help many who have no one to pray for them. They help you too, who have lost a loved one.
May the souls of the faithful departed, through the mercy of God rest in peace. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Grace to you,
In my reflection yesterday, I talked about the need to look around us, admire and share the good we see. There is much good around us. It takes a positive mindset, a virtuous heart to see the good and spread the good news.
May I advance that reflection further by suggesting that there are many bearers of the good news around us. News is about people, places and events. Bearers of good news are people. It’s people who shine the light for everyone to see. It’s people who announce or live the story.
When the poor in India saw the unequalled care, love and attention of Mother Teresa of Calcutta, they found, after all, Christ in that woman of incredible virtue. She was indeed a sister of Jesus. You wouldn’t need to second-guess the qualification of being a brother or sister of the Christ. The answer is straight from the horse’s mouth.
The Lord said, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and act on it” (Luke 8:21). The Blessed Virgin Mary heard God’s word and acted on it. She is the archetype of true faith and true charity. Her role as a model is unique.
Christians are so called because they emulate Christ. They also spread the good news of Christ. They live the Word of God.
Several times, you may have seen people in your circles who have been Christ to you; offering hope and inspiration by their words and lifestyle. Christ in us is the seed of that goodness.
The Church is rich, providing us with great models of faith to emulate. From the contemplatives to the extroverts, advocates to monastics, from the religious to the laity, the military to politicians; from every nation and people and language, name it. The Church has models relatable to all and for any. The Church is truly Catholic—universal; and has an appeal across the centuries and across the world, in the sense that whatever spiritual model you desire, and no matter where you are located, you would find it in the Church.
In the spiritual life, it’s always inspiring to know many have gone the route of holiness in Christ in his Church before us; and that we would, by the grace of God, be part of the story. Someday.
It will be the most beautiful thing that our hearts’ desire will be to hear God’s word and follow it every step of the way. May praising God and shinning the light for everyone to see be our passion. How I wish we desire and love to be saints.
This wish is a prayer with a hope-filled divine blessing. Amen.
God love you. God bless you!
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Tuesday Week 25 Ordinary Time: Ezr 6:7-8, 12, 14-20; LK 8:19-21]
Grace to you!
Drawing from the Lord’s message in Matthew 16:24-28, I share a couple of thoughts on self-denial.
More often, we are in situations where we would have to choose between our legitimate good interest and somebody else’s that is better for the common good. Other times, we would need to adjust or cut down our expectations or valid desires because it pleases the Lord. Many other times, we have to deal with our emotions and desires that aren’t in line with God’s will.
For those who are maturing in the spiritual life, there is more clarity as to the line between good and evil. Deeper life, interior life in Christ, purifies our mind, fostering spiritual clarity. So, responding to the grace of God, those maturing in the spirit tend to avoid unholy acts and desires more readily. But it gets tricky when it has to do with choosing between options that aren’t in themselves evil, but by doing them one wouldn’t be practicing Christian charity or living virtuously. Such calls for a lot of discernment and self-denial.
One realizes that the more we grow in the love and knowledge of the Lord, the more the demands of self-denial and sacrifice. I remember what a spiritual director told me when I was in high school: “If you are asking for the Holy Spirit, you are looking for trouble.”
I never understood the full import of this wise word from a wise spiritual director until the Holy Spirit started to redirect me to where I would rather not want to go. Similar to what the Lord told Peter (Jn 21:18), a time comes when someone else would dress you and take you to where you would rather not want to go. Good thing, though, is that the trouble coming from discipleship of the Lord is a joyful one, the way to glory.
No disciple of the Lord Jesus Christ finds it easy. When Peter tried to alter God’s plan by persuading the Lord Jesus against a prophecy of torments, cross and death (Mt 16:22), did he not get a harsh rebuke from the Lord, “Get behind me Satan”? (Mt 16:23).
Then follows a powerful message for all: “[The Lord said] If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:24-26).
Certainly, these words don’t sound sweet and gentle. They aren’t so nice for many of us who would want to avoid pain at all cost. Definitely, they aren’t a good gospel to speak to a consumerist society like ours.
Little surprise those who follow the Lord in this manner are few, very few. Good news is, those who do, find true joy, freedom and life after all. There is freedom in letting go certain things so we can thrive. There is freedom in enduring some discomfort.
Here are two keys to practicing self-denial. 1) Detachment. Let nothing be worth more than ultimate loyalty to God, and love of neighbor. 2) Embrace the cross. Some discomfort is good for your wellbeing. Offer every of your suffering and difficulties as a gift to God for many. All these by God’s grace.
Praying for the grace to willingly take up our cross, the sufferings that come our way, and offer them as our intentional sacrifice for the salvation of many. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Friday Week 18 Ordinary Time: Dt 4:32-40; Mt 16:24-28]
Grace to you!
You had an inspiration. It was simple and calming. Yet its demand was not what you wanted to do after all. Deep within you, it seems right to do. The result would positively impact lives. It was the first voice within you, the voice of well-formed conscience.
Then comes another voice. It is loud. It aligns with your ego. It is built off of give and take. It seems fair to you. Though you weren’t sure if it springs from true love or charity. It gives you alternative reasons why you shouldn’t follow through with the first voice. It weighs this and weighs that…. It highlights complications that would arise if you followed the first voice. It instills fear and doubt. It shows you all the negatives; hardly, showing the positives. It is a one-sided loud story.
You were swayed. You listened to that second voice. Days or months or years later, you realize you made a terrible mistake. You didn’t listen to the simple invitation of God to follow the right line of action. You realize, “I blew it.” It would cost you a lot to do it over. Yet, be sure that when you realize you made a terrible choice, it is God’s grace inviting you for an incredible rebuilding and do-over. God can rebuild you. Trust God. Walk with God.
Many times, we blow an opportunity because we do not listen to that first voice of God inviting us to a direction that the Lord wants. We read that voice during our prayerful reflection on God’s Word in Scripture. It speaks to us during Public Worship. It ministers in our conscience when we are alone, or out and about in our daily lives.
Because that first voice is gentle and simple, we tend to ignore it. We, like Prophet Elijah, think that God would have to be in the thundering wind and speak in a loud and magical voice. Yet God was found in the quiet (1 Kings 19:11-13); the quiet of our soul where God speaks with that gentle voice, “My child follow this way. Follow me.” Great are those who pay attention and follow that first voice. They do incredibly great. That is one of the secrets of greatness—Listen to the first voice.
Today, we celebrate the life and witness of the Apostle, Saint Andrew. He was the brother of Saint Peter and always mentioned fourth on the list of the apostles. Not much was written in Scripture about him except his call (Mt 4:18-20; Lk 5:11; Mk 1:17-18); his name as one of the twelve apostles (Mt 10:2-4); the role he played during the feeding of the five thousand when he pointed to Jesus that there is a boy who has five loaves and two fish (Jn 6:8-9); and the fact that he was a disciple of John the Baptist and followed Jesus at the Baptist’s testimony (Jn 1:35-40).
Yet from the scanty story, one could infer how he was a person who listened to that first voice of God calling. When the Lord walked by the sea of Galilea and invited him and Peter to follow him, Scripture says, they left everything and followed the Lord (Mt 4:18-20).
How refreshing it is to read such a story of unreserved faith and discipleship. Saint Andrew listened to the first voice of God calling him. He is a man of faith.
Leaving everything and following the Lord isn’t an easy thing to do. It’s like giving the Lord all you are and all you have. It is total surrender to the will of God in your life. It is a true testimony of spiritual greatness.
In our life, how do we leave what we must in order for the Lord to lead us? Most of all, could we leave our comfort zone and step into the deep, of faith life?
Remember that first voice in your life, each day, each week, each month, etc. Follow that voice of conscience that springs from the Lord’s inspiration to do good and to be a blessing unto others and a source of inspiration. The more you follow that voice, the greater you grow in your spiritual life, and in blessings too.
Praying that we open our eyes to see God’s plan and purposes in our everyday life. Amen.
God love you. God bless you.
[November 30, Feast of Saint Andrew: Rm 10:9-18; Mt 4:18-22]
Grace to you!
Thousands of pilgrims were in attendance at Saint Peter’s Square in Rome on Sunday, October 18, 2015 to witness the canonization of Marie-Azelie and Louis Martin, the parents of Saint Thérèse of the Child Jesus, by Pope Francis.
During the homily in the serenity of the solemn Eucharistic celebration, the the Holy Father stated:
“The holy spouses, Louis Martin and Marie-Azelie Guerin, practiced Christian service in the family, creating day by day an environment of faith and love which nurtured the vocations of their daughters, among whom was Saint Therese of the Child Jesus." They are the first-ever married couple with children to be canonized in the same ceremony.
History was made. It is people who make history. The Martins did, and in a big way—the way of sanctity. It is in this context I always look at the story of Saint Theresa (January 2, 1873 – September 30, 1897), popularly known as The Little Flower. Her appreciation and practice of virtue started in the home, the "Church of the home" (John Paul II, Familiaris Consortio, 1981, #38). Modeling the way for the child, as Proverbs 22:6 admonishes, is rewarding.
From her parents, now Saints Zelie and Louis Martin, Thérèse witnessed pure love, and felt God’s enduring love. In that home, she never heard voices raised, hate discussed, materialism promoted and immodesty approved. Love and kindness trumped. She saw beauty as it is and realized how God was seen in all life and activities of the family. Suffering and sickness were not to take away the joy of that home.
So for the girl Therese, the home nurtured the saint. It’s important for us to pay attention to the impact our examples could have on children. Children practice what they learn from home, just as they practice at home what they learn elsewhere, including what they copy from the media. Watchful care is important. Tender, pure and loving example is key.
The Little Flower’s example of “the little way” is spiritually brilliant. For the Little Flower, it is “doing ordinary things extraordinarily with love. This spiritual model sounds simple, but it is profound. It’s a model that could permeate every aspect of our lives today, if we live up to it. Often, it is in those little acts of love that holiness of life flourishes. It is in them that God is glorified.
Simple acts such as housecleaning, making our bed, keeping the restroom better than we found it, a genuine smile to a stranger, proper use of time, not wasting food and giving somebody a listening ear, may have great impact. So also simple acts of charity, spontaneous prayers in response to a prayer-burden, generous gift of our time to help someone else, etc., could mean much in our spiritual life. In doing such simple things as these with pure love, we lead the way of perfection.
The temptation to be known, to be famous or to do incredible things is huge for many. Nonetheless, we learn from the Little Flower how true it is that exaltation comes from God to the simple and the humble (Prov 3:34; Mt 23:12). Pope Pius X called her “the greatest saint of the modern times.” It wasn’t because of her unusual ascetic life, exceptional academic qualifications, physical beauty, mind-boggling ideas or innovation, or material success. It was for her pure love and audacious simplicity. Her heart was like that of a child, the kind the Lord presents to us as a model (Lk 9:46-48).
Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus (I take her as my girlfriend) has taught me many things as she taught another Father Maurice, a French Missionary in Africa, who was her penpal and friend, how to love God above all else. I owe to her some aspects of my spiritual journey.
Saint Theresa of the Child Jesus, pray for us.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
Grace to you!
What would have happened if heaven were based on biological family relationships? What will happen if sharing in the life of Christ is based on biological affiliation?
I suppose it would mean that only the Jews would be saved. It would mean that those born in the Middle East would be included and others excluded. It would also mean that all who trace their family tree to Jesus or Mary or the apostles are assured of heaven.
We would end up with tribal religion. It would be so exclusive that the greater percentage of the world would have no chance. You may not even have a chance.
Other consequences would be the triumph of racism, ethnicism and tribalism. It would also mean a blanket approval of clannism and cronyism. People would promote those who look like them or belong to their club, and shut the door to those that are different. It would mean the worst type of segregation. It would mean an endorsement of injustice of the worst kind. I wonder how such a religious faith would be. Unfortunately, some who claim to profess Christ today tend to think this way and act this way.
Good news is that the Lord Jesus Christ has not offered us such a faith. Rather, he shows the radical nature of the Christian faith by teaching us that the most important thing is not biological family, cultural or regional affiliation with him, but spiritual birth into him. “Doing the will of his Father.”
We read from the Gospel of Matthew 12:46-50 his response to a man who let him know his members family were outside waiting for him. “Stretching out his hand toward his disciples,” Jesus said, “Here are my mother and my brethren! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother, and sister, and mother” (Mt 12:49-50).
In another place, when a woman extolled Mother Mary, the mother of the Lord, for being the womb that bore Jesus. Jesus replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!” (Lk 11:28).
In either case, the Lord was not disrespecting his mother and family. Rather, he was showing that the grace of being affiliated to him is dependent on the quality of one doing God’s will. We are brothers and sisters of the Lord when we do his will, which is also the will of the Father.
When we are baptized, we are baptized into the Lord. We are born again to begin a new life, the life of the Spirit of Christ. We are graced to become doers of the Lord’s will. That is what makes us members of the family of God in word and in deed. It is a spiritual rebirth open for all.
Hence, one of the signs of this rebirth is being like Christ. Loving the way Jesus loves. Seeing each other as family. It doesn’t matter where anyone comes from, because in Christ, we are all brethren. People who act in this manner are truly the family of God.
I pray that God will give us the grace to look beyond biological affiliations and see one another as brethren.
God love you. God bless you.
Fr. Maurice Emelu
[Tuesday Week 16 Ordinary Time: MI 7:14-15, 18-20; Mt 12:46-50]
Fr. Maurice Emelu, Ph.D.
Father Maurice provides a daily blog of reflections based on Scriptural readings of the day from the Catholic liturgical calendar. You will find these reflections helpful for your spiritual growth, inspiration and developing your own thoughts. It may also be helpful for ministers in preparing their sermons for liturgical celebrations.