The whole country seemed seized by forces beyond their control. An alien culture threatened to overturn long-held values. Religiously inspired zealots used terrorist tactics to destabilize the regime they regarded as illegitimate. Defenders of the status quo came down hard on new beliefs challenging their tenuous grip on power.
In the midst of this repressive political climate Philip, a new disciple not one of the Twelve, we hear in the first reading, “went down to the city of Samaria.” Desperate for some hope-filled words the women and men there “listened eagerly to what was said by Philip.” They “accepted the word of God.” “(T)here was great joy in the city.”
Today we seem to be teetering either on the edge of a great awakening or a cataclysmic spiral into chaos as every human and natural system seems to be breaking down after centuries of exploitation and abuse. Aren’t we also desperately grasped with the desire to hear the Word, which will give us hope today?
Spreading the Good News in first-century Palestine or in 21st-century North America can mean taking risks. Peter tells us in the second reading that you may be maligned or abused for saying what needs to be said. But “it is better to suffer for doing good, if suffering should be God’s will, than to suffer for doing evil.”
During my time as the president of the National Council of the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace (D&P) in the late 1980s, the struggle against the racist apartheid government of South Africa had reached global dimensions. D&P took strong stands, such as calling on the Canadian government to evoke comprehensive sanctions against the repressive South African regime. Hate letters addressed to me as president denounced our support of communists like, they said, Nelson Mandela.
We proudly stood by prophetic witnesses such as Archbishop Denis Hurley of Durban, South Africa. In the late 1980s the archbishop travelled across Western Canada where he spoke out against apartheid at events organized by D&P. As chair of the Southern African Catholic Bishops’ Conference he had drafted a pivotal pastoral letter in which the bishops denounced apartheid as “blasphemy” and “intrinsically evil.”
We hosted other speakers, among them Rev. Michael Lapsley, a committed member of the African National Congress. After a long day of presentations in Prince Albert, I drove him to Rosthern where a car from Saskatoon would meet us and take him on to more presentations.
I guess I had expressed my despair at the lack of responsiveness to our calls for global justice. He counselled me to recognize the importance of the struggle and to see solidarity as an ongoing journey. He prophetically shared with me, it turned out, that our faith allows us to persevere in the face not only of indifference but even violent resistance.
A car found us at the rendez-vous point, then he headed off into the night and I returned home. I would hear in horror just weeks later that Father Lapsley back at his home in exile in Harare, Zimbabwe, would, while going through a stack of mail, trigger a letter bomb hidden inside a packet containing two religious magazines. The attack by a covert arm of the South African security forces would destroy both his hands and cause him to lose the sight in one eye as well as sustain serious burns. They did not silence him.
Today he serves as director of the Institute for Healing of Memories in Cape Town, South Africa. His organization holds a vision that sees it “Striving to be a leading agent of hope, transformation and peace by empowering individuals, communities and nations through healing of memories.” In this way it seeks to contribute to a more peaceful and just future for all of us. Certainly they hope we all can see that we and our world are in need of healing, because of what has been done to us, what we have done, and failed to do.
How many other voices have we heard from over the 50 years that D&P has been with us? Do you remember the Mothers of May Square? During the darkest days of the military dictatorship in Argentina they travelled across the Prairies on a “secret” tour urging us to help them defend basic human rights there and by extension here in our own land. A few weeks ago they celebrated 40 years of action, which continues to inspire us.
How about Filo Hirota, the Mercedarian Missionary nun from Japan whose work in the Philippines during the difficult days of the Marcos dictatorship called us to action. Or Christopher Mwoleka, the Bishop of Rulenge, Tanzania, whose simple lifestyle and inspiring words on the importance of small Christian communities pushed us to examine if we were too focused here on institutions and buildings rather than the task of building truly Christian, just and sustainable societies. Sister Mary Hartman from Nicaragua, Bishop Mauro Morelli from the slums outside Rio de Janeiro, and many more proclaimed the message of Christ among us.
Let there be joy in our towns and cities. As Jesus said in the Gospel of John, “I will not leave you orphaned.” It is true. The “Spirit of truth” continues to move among us, to call us to accept the Word of God and live accordingly today just as in the first days of that small struggling community of believers.
Dougherty is co-chair of the Social Justice Committee at Sacred Heart Cathedral in Whitehorse, Yukon.