18 December 2011

Tales from the Hinterland

Archbishop Fulton Sheen was National Director for the Society for the Propagation of the Faith for a number of years, and came across some rather remarkable stories from those toiling in the vineyard. They remind us, among other things, that life is one long labor for souls. Those who seek rest and comfort in this life miss the point.

You can sleep when you're dead.
One of the first visitors whom I received in my role of National Director was a bishop in Pakistan. He told me that at the outbreak of the war he, being an Italian missionary bishop, was arrested, put into jail and told that he would not be released until the war was over. A few days later he received a visit from a thirteen-year-old girl named Clara Mark, a Hindu whom he converted to the Faith. She said: "Bishop, you will not be here in this prison very long; you will be released at the end of six months and will continue to serve as a bishop for years to come."

The Bishop inquired how she knew he would be released from prison. She said: "I have offered my life for you, and for the success of your work." Six months later the authorities unlocked the prison door and told the Bishop that he was free to continue to live as a bishop in Pakistan. His first visit immediately after leaving prison was to Clara Mark, and he learned from her parents that she had died that morning.

Another friend of mine, who worked among the primitive people in Australia, was Father Vincent Shiel. This missionary, slightly beyond middle age, came to my office with this story. "I am a missionary in the desert district of 125,000 square miles in Australia. Only two classes live there: sheepherders and opal miners. The opal miners are naked and live underground, cutting holes in the walls for places to sleep. I have no rectory, other than my Volkswagen. The heat in the desert averages about 125 degrees. Almost the only kind of food I can carry are cans of peaches. It seems that any other kind explodes in the desert. I asked my bishop if I might become a Trappist; he refused. I then sought his permission to visit you in America, to tell you why I wanted to become a Trappist, namely, because I felt I had failed some of my people in the desert."...

When I asked him to describe his life to me further, it developed that, in crossing the desert, he would sometimes be 350 miles or more from a single human being. In one crossing, a stone flew up and cracked his battery, making further journey impossible. The limit of life, he told me, walking in such heat without food and drink, would be less than a day. There was nothing to do but pray for help or resign oneself to death. As eh leaned his head over the steering wheel, making his act of resignation to God, he heard the rumble of a truck in the distance. The truck was carrying a spare battery and thus his life was saved.

After hearing the unimaginable sacrifices he was making for his people, and learning that he would often go down into the opal mines to read Mass for his people and instruct them, I said: "My dear Father, I think that you are looking for a plastic cross instead of a wooden one." By that I meant that there was no sacrifice he could make in an ascetic community which could equal the sacrifices he was making in the desert. Just a few moments before, I had given him a personal check to buy a new Volkswagen, since he had told me that the one he owned when he left was swept away in a flood. But he tore up the check and left, showing considerable resentment against my reference to the "plastic cross."

A few weeks later he came back and apologized, saying: "You were right; I am fleeing from a difficult mission. I shall return and give my life." This he has done, and to such a noble extent that it is difficult to find anyone who will take his place in that desert mission.

On one of my visits to the missions, I went to a leper colony in Buluba, Africa, where there were 500 lepers. I brought with me 500 silver crucifixes, intending to give one to each of the lepers--this symbol of the Lord's Redemption. The first one who came to meet me had his left arm eaten off at the elbow by the disease. He put out his right hand and it was the most foul, noisome mass of corruption I ever saw. I held the silver crucifix above it, and dropped it. It was swallowed up in that volcano of leprosy.

All of a sudden there were 501 lepers in that camp; I was the 501st because I had taken that symbol of God's identification with man and refused to identify myself with someone who was a thousand times better on the inside than I. Then it came over me the awful thing I had done. I dug my fingers into his leprosy, took out the crucifix and pressed it into his hand. And so on, for all the other 499 lepers. From that moment on I learned to love them.