Wednesday, October 22, 2008

On the move

Just to let you know that there will probably be no new reflections coming out until after 11th November, as I am to travel to Nigeria on Thursday 23rd October.

The Pontifical Mission Societies helps to support 194,855 schools, 5,246 hospitals, 17,530 dispensaries and 577 leprosy centres and 80,560 social and pastoral projects in the younger Church across the world.

As a result, two representatives from the Scottish office and I are to visit some of the projects in Nigeria that are supported by the people of England, Wales and Scotland.

Many of the places where we'll be travelling will have electricity only if and when a generator is switched on, usually at night, and will have a slow Internet connection at best. As a result, although there will be the potential for many 'traveller's tales', the possibility of transferring them to the outside world will be very few.

Please pray for us as we travel, that our work might be of great benefit and support to a rapidly-growing and developing Church.
God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

An act of resistance

At a time when Zimbabwe is in the news, there is also the true story...
Below is something I received this morning.
God bless,
Sr Janet

The genuine poor do not mob you and try to twist your arm. They come up to you very quietly, shyly, embarrassed that they have to bother you, as those three women did who stopped me after the evening service on Monday night, “Father, we have not eaten anything last night. We went to the (black) market, but we came back with nothing. Those prices! We just did not have the money…….”
These were not the usual destitutes, e.g. old widows with orphaned grandchildren to look after who are on our list of needy people and get regular hand-outs of mealie meal, beans and cooking oil.
These were people who are normally self-supporting, even moderately prosperous by Mbare standards.
Afonso is an old Mozambican whose wife has died long ago and whose children too have either died or have vanished somewhere looking for work. He is left with eight orphaned grandchildren. What we give him is eaten by that hungry crowd in a few days, and he asks for more.
Normally he is a very cheerful, humorous old gentleman with a friendly smile, full of little jokes and laughter.
When I shake his hand I am aware that that paw in his day inflicted a lot of damage on anyone foolish enough to argue with him. Afonso is a retired boxer. He used to be known, and feared, as “Tar Baby”. Now he could not hurt a fly.
But today his smile is gone. Those grandchildren and their hungry bellies are a really worry him.

Oskar Wermter SJ

Sunday, October 19, 2008


The old lady has been washing clothes in a wooden tub, balanced precariously on a 3-legged stool. Soap-suds overflow the tub, dripping onto the stone floor beneath. Yet there is no peace. Three small grandchildren, with china mgs and clay pipes have decided that this is the ideal time for blowing bubbles. For a short while, old and young share laughter, conversation and an otherwise boring, mundane job.

Sooner, rather than later, the little girl’s mug has been dipped into the washtub a few too many times. It is time to drive her away. Her grandmother picks up a wet cloth and tries to whack her giggling granddaughter as the little girl runs away. The distraction is just too good an opportunity to miss. Her brother dips his mug into the soapsuds whilst his grandmother momentarily looks away…

It is a beautiful family picture, capturing a moment of intimacy between an elderly lady and three small children. It also happens to be one of my favourites.

Lord, watch over families and allow them to grow in warmth and understanding. Let children feel safe and protected. Grant that the elderly might be a focus of love, wisdom and experience for the younger family members. May parents know the love of their children and be themselves loving and generous towards each other and towards those whom God has given them.

God bless,
Sr Janet

(Washtub … Arthur John Elsley)

Friday, October 17, 2008

Save life!

October 22nd is the date when the proposed amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill go before the House of Lords. They could become law unless our actions and a miracle happen.Follow this link for a range of pro-life videos produced by the Christian lawyers' group, Christian Concern for our Nation (ccfon).

God bless,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

We pray…

They were a young couple, leaving the hospital hand-in-hand. She was about six months pregnant … and she was crying. He spoke quietly to her as she reached for her handkerchief.

Who were they? What had made her cry? Did they have bad news about the baby, or about one of themselves, or about someone else? Had the bottom suddenly fallen out of their world?

So many people find themselves needing to cope with something that has changed their lives beyond all expectations, to come to terms with devastating events. They need hope. They need care. They need love.

Lord, this evening, we pray for the young couple and for all others like them, whose lives are not full of the life and energy we associate with youth.

We pray for all those who are sick, born and unborn, that they might find healing and all the support and strength that they need.

We pray for everyone who has received bad news, that in the darkness, they might find light and courage.

We pray for those who weep, that there might be someone to dry their tears.

We pray for the misunderstood, that they might find understanding.

We pray for the lonely, that they might find companionship and love.

We pray for all those who grieve, that they might be comforted

….and we pray for those who rejoice, that their happiness might increase

….and we pray that each and every one of us, whatever our feelings and experiences, might find God and his love.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Living martyrs

The year was 1998. The place was Rome and the number 23 bus heading towards St. Peter’s. I was enjoying the scenery along the way when I suddenly realised that the two people standing in the aisle were speaking in English and that they had chosen the language because they had, erroneously, thought they would not be understood. Perhaps they were foolish in their assumption, but, from the closeness of my window seat and under my ‘disguise’ as a tourist, I enjoyed, for a few brief moments, the experience of being a spy and laughed to myself at its unexpectedness.

…except that the conversation between the man and the Sister was deadly serious and deeply moving, which was why I did not feel too guilty for overhearing something that had not included me but which, because of its proximity, I could not escape.

“I’ve just been to see the bishop”, the Sister remarked. “It’s now one week since he was smuggled here from China, but it is very difficult for him. He has spent so long in solitary confinement that he has forgotten how to speak and is having to learn, all over again, to talk and to become accustomed to having people address him. I have tried to interview him, but it took so long for him to say anything. He is really very frustrated because he cannot communicate. In prison, the guards would supply his food, but it was in silence.”

It was at that point that a noisy band of tourists boarded the bus and ruined my chances of hearing more about the unidentified bishop in an unknown location. Who was he? I have no idea. I suspect that, had he decided to recant his Catholicism, he would have been released from jail.

For how long was he in prison? Again, I have no idea. Yet, the mere fact that he had forgotten how to speak suggests that it was for many years.

As the Sister and the man to whom she was speaking moved further along the bus, an image from the cinema flashed across my mind: that of the late Cardinal Mintzenty, on his hands and knees, scrubbing the floor of his cell, praying aloud the words of the hymn, ‘Dies Irae’ (‘Day of judgement, day of wrath…’) in an attempt to retain his sanity when his solitary confinement would have rendered a lesser man insane.

Was it Dietrich Bonhoeffer who used to preach sermons to himself when he was taken captive by the Nazis?

How does someone, so isolated from the world, in physical and, presumably, spiritual, darkness, survive and emerge more sane than the rest of us? Deprived of books, of human contact and communication, it is all very well to say that such a person can spend their time in prayer, but are there not also times when such an individual would be tempted to lose faith? Quite frankly, wouldn’t such a prisoner, however saintly, be rather bored of saying endless rosaries over seemingly interminable years and would find even a discussion about the weather a cause of boundless pleasure and excitement?

A short time ago, a man was released from prison in Pakistan after many years (25?) of darkness, with no glimpse of sunlight in that time. How did he react when he glimpsed the sun for the first time?

That unidentified Chinese bishop found his new surroundings terrifyingly large and insecure after the cramped confines of his prison cell. Freedom was something that would take time and effort to appreciate. What was it like for him when he stepped from the plane in Rome for the first time and realised that he need never again be a captive of those who sought to destroy everything for which he had faced imprisonment in the first place?

Did he long to return to China, to be with those who were still held in a prison of sorts, even if they were relatively free to roam their own streets? Was there a sense of solidarity and shared experience with the Chinese Catholic community whom he would meet in Rome, exiled for their faith?

Martyrdom is not only a thing of our history. We have living martyrs in our present. Do we pray for them or to them?

God bless,
Sr Janet

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Jesus Rediscovered

Do you remember Malcolm Muggeridge? He was one of those media people who spanned the transition from black-and-white to colour television and who always seemed to me to be ancient, but perhaps that says more about my own youthfulness at the time. He made pretty good documentaries, but also earned a reputation as an agnostic. His unforgettable programme was an interview with Mother Teresa, the script of which was later published as ‘Something Beautiful for God’.

When Muggeridge conducted the interview, he did not ask leading questions that forced the desired answers from Mother Teresa. Instead, his enquiry struck me, even as a child, as coming from his own personal search. Yes, as a good journalist, he asked questions on behalf of his audience, but there was more to it than that. He listened and evaluated all that she said in such a way that, very quickly, the interview became a dialogue. He was careful, humble, sincere and honest, so the responses he called forth from Mother Teresa were of the same ilk.

At the time, someone retorted that nobody could conduct such an interview and still call themselves an agnostic. Yet, at the end of the programme, Muggeridge still claimed not to know whether or not God exists.

Mother Teresa’s reaction was that she would pray for him, and, indeed, a genuine friendship resulted.

Muggeridge disappeared from the media, I presume, to retire, but I have often wondered if he found God before he died. Reading ‘Jesus Rediscovered’, I think he did. It was fascinating to see his search for God, wishing he could believe. There were so many times when he felt himself ‘almost but not quite’ there, and continued his pursuit of the God he thought possibly existed, but did not know for sure.

The idea of God was so persistent that, try as he might, Muggeridge could not escape the questioning and the search for answers. Every time he put up a good argument for not believing, he was honest enough to realise that it was because Christianity was, in Jesus, holding out an ideal to which, sadly, some Christians were failing to aspire. (In fact I was reminded of Gandhi’s remark, “I like your Christ but not your Christians!”)

Muggeridge was merely seeing beyond the human to the Divine. He just did not see that he had actually grasped the essence of Christianity and just had to take one small step in order to see for himself that, yes, he had come to believe in God and in Jesus and had become a Christian almost without realising he had taken the necessary step.

A number of people describe themselves as either atheists or agnostics. One or two of them are just spiritually sloppy and have not made the effort to find out about God. However some of them are deeply, deeply sincere people who have faced incredible suffering and disappointment, far beyond the coping abilities of most people.
Pain is a strange thing, whether physical or psychological. It strengthens the faith of some and weakens that of others. Some individuals say that it has only been their faith in God that has helped them through a particular period, whereas others have felt so lonely and overwhelmed that they have asked “Is there a God?” and, as their suffering continued, some have turned their question into a declaration: “There is no God”.

Actually, for these people, both the question and the declaration are statements of faith. They haven’t merely drifted into an apathetic statement, made from indifference and laziness. They have needed God and didn’t feel his presence. They have truly been with Jesus when, on the Cross, he cried out, “My God! My God! Why have you forsaken me?” These are the ones who, having experienced Calvary, desperately need help to experience the Resurrection.

Sometimes, those who describe themselves as atheists are not atheists at all. They are merely very angry with God as a result of all that they have suffered but do not realise that, actually, their belief in God is alive and well. They just need an opportunity to let off a great deal of steam in his direction, have a good cry and then feel his arms around them, loving them and healing the wounds. Sadly, for some people, this might take longer than a lifetime.

Could it be, if I know an atheist or an agnostic who is such because of pain, that I could allow myself to be God’s instrument of love and of healing? Could I, in some way, gently help God to reach out through my hands, words and responses? Could I help someone to rediscover Jesus?

God bless,
Sr Janet

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Mary, the first tabernacle

Many, many times in Zambia, I had the privilege of allowing a woman to hear the heartbeat of her unborn baby.

She was always a woman from one of the fishing villages, some more remote than others. The woman was usually illiterate. Sometimes she had children already. Sometimes it was the first baby. It didn’t matter. The reaction was always the same. There was silence, followed by stunned disbelief, and then a slow, radiant smile unlike anything else that I have ever seen in my entire life. The smile was one of wonder, mystery, joy and of sharing in something so deep and so personal that although I was a participant, it was only on the perimeter. The woman, for a few seconds, had gone beyond anything she had ever known or experienced.

If the baby was big enough, I could let the mother identify the head, buttocks, arms and legs of her unborn child. Once or twice we were even able to feel its chin! I always told the mothers that they should talk to their babies; that a baby is born with the ability to identify its mother’s voice from that of anybody else on earth. A local tradition led women to fill the newborn baby’s palm with water for its mother to drink, believing that the baby would protect her from the pains of childbirth.

There was one wonderful, unforgettable occasion when, one baby was still unborn and had scarcely started to emerge from the tabernacle of its mother’s womb, it took hold of my index finger and wouldn’t let go. The mother and I laughed, but it was laughter shared with God. It was an unbelievably sacred moment.

On another occasion a woman gave birth to her first daughter after nine boys. I found her sitting on the edge of the bed, gazing at her infant, filled with wonder that, at last, she had the girl-child for whom she had longed. One word. “Malaika”. “Angel”….and so she named her baby.

Mary, the mother of Jesus. The first tabernacle and the first one to hold Jesus close to her heart.

God bless,
Sr. Janet

Sunday, October 05, 2008


Our Lady of Aparecida. The story happens to be fact, rather than fiction.

The year was 1717. Three fishermen struggled to net fish and caught nothing. They tried again and again, but still without success. Eventually, continuing downstream on Brazil’s River Paraiba, they let down their nets once more. This time, instead of hauling in a net full of fish, they discovered a blackened, sculpted and headless clay statue of the Immaculate Conception. The next time they cast their nets, they discovered the head.

Legend has it that the three men continued fishing, with the same failure until, in desperation, one of them suggested that they pray to Our Lady, under the title of ‘Aparecida’ (who had ‘appeared’ in their nets). Almost immediately afterwards, they caught so many fish that their nets were almost at breaking point.

Who knows how the statue came to be in the river? Perhaps Frey Agostino de Jesus, the monk who had created it in 1650 and who was renowned for his sculpture, threw it there. Who knows? What is certain is that the statue was repaired and kept in the home of Felipe Pedroso, one of the three fishermen.

Over the years, people prayed to Our Lady under her title of Aparecida until today, when she is the Patroness of Brazil, with a massive basilica in her honour in Sao Paolo. It is to this national Marian shrine that Pope Benedict, made his way during his journey to Brazil. Just as his predecessor, Pope John Paul II, he reverenced the much-repaired 3ft statue, now crowned and clothed in a stiff, richly embroidered cloak. Because of the enveloping mantle, only a very slim section of the actual image is visible these days, so it is hard to see that there was ever any damage. She appears whole once more.

I freely admit that I only learned recently of ‘the Aparecida’. In fact, it was only on researching the background of this shrine for a programme that I discovered the identity of the beautiful statue in the office of Vatican Radio’s Brazilian Programme. She is positioned perfectly so that she looks down on the Brazilians as they work.

During the Pope’s visit to Brazil, all of a sudden, the Aparecida was on everybody’s tongue. The most Brazilian of devotions to Our Lady spread across the world. The reason was beautifully clear. The broken and repaired statue represents a people who have often been broken by sorrow and pain, who struggle painfully to combat poverty, oppression and injustice. The fact that this little image has been repaired, not once, but many times, symbolises for a deeply spiritual nation, the healing that can take place through persistent prayer.

It is, then, entirely appropriate that in the basilica, there is a mosaic of ‘women who have made a difference’ to the people of Brazil. Neither is it any wonder that, amongst them, is a Sister of Notre Dame. After all, in February 2005, Sr. Dorothy Stang was gunned down as she took food and clothing to a poor family, deep in the Amazon basin. She died for the healing of the landless peasants, whose homes are regularly burned down by the logging companies and the multinationals that are more interested in making money than in caring for others. She, who faced her hired killers with her Bible and the words of the Beatitudes, is to be included in that mosaic, as a ‘woman who made a difference’...just like our Mother, Mary.

God bless,
Sr Janet

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Tragedy in the mail

‘Dear All,
Urgent Prayer needed now. Holy Cross Convent Thane Gate Burnt. Riots in progress. Please send 2 as many prayer warriors. From,

That was all it said. I do not know the writer of the e-mail, nor from what part of India he was writing. I can only imagine the fear in which that brief message was written and that is what makes it so frightening.

I have never been to India, but I have known many Indians and am privileged to count some of the people of that vast Continent amongst my dearest friends.

Several days ago, visiting England on other business, I met an Indian journalist, who spoke passionately about the country she had left only days previously. She was articulate, very well-informed and eager to speak. There was a marked urgency about her words that matched the many equally urgent e-mails I have received during the past couple of weeks from the Jesuits of the Indian programme of Vatican Radio. Theirs is an attempt to get the horror of all that is currently happening in their homeland out to the rest of the world.

Thank God, most of us will never know what it is like to look from the window of one’s home to see a riot in full swing, with a great possibility of serious injury and even death. Places where there has been no history of conflict between Hindu and Christian are suddenly torn apart. Terrible stories are emerging by the hour, and yet they do not reach the rest of the world where politics and the economic crisis are the lead headlines.

Let us pray, pray, pray for the people of India at this time. May there be healing and understanding. May God bless a Continent known for the depth of its spirituality and religious faith.

Prince of Peace, bring peace to your little ones, regardless of their faith.

God bless,
Sr Janet