Br Andrew, a Hong Kong Missionary of Charity, reflects on Advent
ADVENT is that month before Christmas when we are asked to prepare for the coming birth of Christ. It is a time of waiting. As we are all essentially waiting people, we can all greet each other before Christmas as one waiting person to another.
Being able to wait is one of the hidden secrets of a peaceful and fruitful life — whether one is a farmer waiting for the harvest, a sailor's wife, the victim of a broken leg, a struggling pilgrim on the way, or a pregnant mother.
God and nature are breathtakingly patient. And so they survive and endure follies and frustration at the hands of man. God never gave up on His people despite their constant infidelities — until He sent His own Son born at the first Christmas. And still He waits for us.
It has long been my experience that healthy waiting, faithful waiting always leads to wonderful surprises. The supreme example of that was Mary's waiting in unlikely Nazareth: "I am the handmaid of the Lord."
During the year I read of a large group of retired nuns in America for whom there are no adequate retirement funds. There are some 115,000 nuns in America with an average age now over 60. The article spoke of a gap of S2 billion between the retirement funds in hand, and what is needed, It spoke of 1000 nuns drawing welfare, of meatless meals, clipping food coupons and other signs of a very real poverty.
The women have given the long years of their active and dedicated lives in Catholic schools and hospitals. And they did this for what could be called a subsistence wage. Many of us, or our parents, have received our education or been nursed by such women. There were times in America, Britain, Australia, where to be a Catholic was to be a second-class citizen. Many of us would not be where we are today if we had not been helped by a good education that took into account the struggle our families were experiencing to make ends meet. This was largely possible because of nuns and brothers who received no salary.
Like a lot of kids we have forgotten how much we have received from parents, teachers, good neighbours. By chance the day after I read this article (which was in The Wall Street Journal of all places), I read of
the tragic deaths of six aged and retired Loreto nuns in Dublin who lost their lives in an awful fire that destroyed their convent. I wonder if part of the answer in all this may be that Christ is accepting the offering of those religious women who dedicated themselves and their lives as a complete gift to Him in their profession made many years ago.
Their plight may leave them — and us — reduced to the only
recourse available when we've laboured all night and caught nothing — namely trust in the Lord and surrender into His loving hands. It's madness in eyes accustomed to look for salvation in contracts, rights or sound management. But really the Gospel isn't all that strong on these things either.
I wonder if these nuns in the extremity of their lives and neglect are not standing before all of us in witness to a vital forgotten aspect of being a disciple of Christ — that He calls us to find life in losing it, in letting it go.
Those six Loreto nuns perhaps call for a Gerard Manley Hopkins to sing of their final surrender — as he did for the Franciscan nuns lost at sea in his The Wreck of the Deutschland, as they were driven by persecution from their homeland. It is surprising how often we need reminders of elementary truths long forgotten for one reason or another.
The Letter to the Hebrews comes to mind here: "Some had to bear being pilloried and flogged, or even chained up in prison... They were homeless... They were penniless and were given nothing but ill-treatment. They were too good for this world and they went out to live in deserts and mountains, in caves and ravines... We too, then, should throw off everything that hinders us... and keep running steadily in the race we have started. Let us not lose sight of Jesus... For the sake of the joy that was still in the future, He endured the Cross, disregarding the shamefulness of it."
This doesn't mean everyone can put aside the issue of these nuns and do nothing. But it does give an immediate meaning to the suffering of our sisters whose offering of their lives first
made years ago was not or gotten by God, who right at the end took them at their word. Perhaps at this painful stage of their waiting, these retired nuns give their final but finest lesson to a world of broken promises and infidelity, where simply walking out is so common when the going gets rough.
These nuns offer sympathetic witness to the poor of the world and to countless people deserted by spouse, parent or children. They offer a promise of hope in their faith in a God who does not forget — even if the whole world forgets.
The congregation of brothers that I headed grew enormously in 20 years: 500 members in 85 communities in 30 countries. But I am keenly aware that I could never guarantee the fading years of all these men — in places like India, Korea, El Salvador, Ethiopia. I can't even foretell my own fading years.
But really I don't have to apologise for that — for it is the following of a Crucified Christ that we freely professed.
Recently unpublished news came out of China about a number of old priests who have spent 30 or so years in prison for their faith. Because they are now considered too old to do any harm they have been released. But they have not been given any documents, which means they can't get a house, job or rotation card. They are "non-persons". So they go from place to place getting whatever help people give them.
The to tally unexpected surprise, however, after these long years of waiting is that many people are finding faith and a new vision of their life through these old priests.
Waiting can be long and painful. But it need not be wasted. Rather it can be as fruitful as the time between sowing and harvesting immensely more so when it surrenders in faith to the mystery that is your story and mine.
So I can rejoice to share my waiting with you, with those old nuns and the Chinese priests, with the poor and the sailor's wife — with Mary of Nazareth waiting for the birth of her Child at Christmas, who waits for each of us at the end of our waiting.
For w hatever the circumstances of our waiting, we all live on the promise of a faithful God. In the meantime, at Christmas, you and I, while we wait, can pray for each other.