Tuesday, 24 November 2009

The Jubilee Homily

The following is a transcript of Father Michael Smith's homily given at the Jubilee Mass.

50th Anniversary Mass, Pentecost Sunday, 31 May 2009
Acts 2: 1-11; 1 Corinthians 12: 3b-7, 12-13, John 15: 26-27; 16: 12-15

Michael Smith SJ

Today is Pentecost Sunday - the day when we celebrate the coming of te Wairua Tapu, the Holy Spirit. This morning I invite you to consider te Wairua Tapu as power. What we are celebrating at this Golden Jubilee of Francis Douglas Memorial College is power. In this homily I will explore four points:

Different kinds of power
Power in multi-national organisations
Power in innovative ideas
Power in self-sacrificial love.

Different Kinds of Power

We know about political power - the power of Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin, John Key and Bill English. We also see the misuse of economic power - and the global financial crisis is an example. The media is full of social power - the hikoi to protest about the governance of the proposed Auckland super-city is an example of social power. Most days we deal with computer power - power that allows students to study online university courses offered in another city or even in another country. Much of the world is controlled by military power - the power of unmanned drones used in targeted assassinations of people in the Swat Valley of Pakistan with the touch of a button by an operator watching a monitor in Afghanistan - like some bizarre computer game. The terrorist uses the power of fear to coerce others. We see the intimidatory power of the North Koreans testing nuclear weapons. We seek the healing power of the nurse and so on. Power takes many forms. Power happens between people. Power, at its simplest, is the ability to do something, to act, to accomplish.

Lord Acton, the 19th Century English Historian, famously remarked that: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Given the possibility of being corrupted by power, should we avoid it? No, because we can receive a power that is not of this world, a power which we should use. Jesus spoke of it before his ascension:

‘You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).

But what does that power actually look like in my life and in yours?

Power in Multi-National Organizations

The average life-span of a multinational corporation listed in Fortune Magazine’s 500 top companies is between 40 and 50 years. A recent study shows that the average life-span of all firms in Japan and much of Europe is only 12 and a half years. They go bankrupt, get acquired, merged and broken up.

At the heart of our gathering this weekend is a multinational organisation that is more than 300 years old. I am talking about the De La Salle Brothers. They were founded in France in 1684 by Saint John Baptist de La Salle as a community of Brothers whose purpose was to serve the educational needs of the poor. A handful of Brothers began in France. 300 years later they are in 84 countries. The long life of this multinational - whose headquarters in Rome I have stayed at - suggests that something powerful is at work here. Te Wairua Tapu.

The founder, John Baptist de La Salle, was a creative and learned man who had a doctorate in theology. He made finding and doing the will of God the goal of his life. He slowly came to realize that his true calling was as an educator and that God wanted him to set up a proper system for the education of poor children who were grossly neglected. This enterprise consumed the rest of his life. The insight de La Salle brought to the schooling of the poor was that such an educational enterprise needed the power of organisation and system. There were already charity schools operating at the time, but they were poorly organised, badly staffed and often failed. De La Salle’s genius lay in creating an organised body of trained teachers and a system of schools.

Power in Innovative Ideas

Another key to the success of de La Salle was that he thought deeply and wrote extensively about education. His ideas were powerful. For instance, in 1685, he founded what is generally considered to be the first teacher training college in Reims. Also he decided that the Brothers’ schools for the poor would be free. This aroused the hostility of those who operated fee-paying schools which began to lose students. Lawsuits were brought against de La Salle, and his schools were even attacked. De La Salle was undaunted and, by the time he died in 1719, he had founded schools in 22 cities in France. De La Salle contributed significantly to the field of education through his writing and innovative teaching methods. He was one of the founders of modern education. Te Wairua Tapu.

Power in Self-Sacrificial Love

Francis Douglas was born in Johnsonville, near Wellington, on 22 May 1910, the fifth of eight children. Last Sunday I said Mass in the Johnsonville Church, Ss Peter and Paul, which Francis attended as a boy. His photo has pride of place on the wall of the church. He finished school at age 14 and worked as a messenger boy with the Post and Telegraph Department for two years before he entered Holy Cross Seminary at Mosgiel as a sixteen year-old and began studying for the priesthood.

Following his ordination in 1933, Francis Douglas worked as a curate in the parishes of Johnsonville, Opunake and New Plymouth, but his heart was elsewhere. He was drawn to join the St Columban’s Foreign Mission Society. In 1936 Fr Douglas went to Australia to join the Columbans, and to train for a year at their seminary in Melbourne. Then in late 1938 he was appointed to Pililla, a fishing village near Manila in the Philippines. Three years later the Japanese occupied Manila in January 1942. Although he had ample time to escape, he felt he could not leave his people in their time of need. He wrote home to his family: “They have nowhere else to go - and neither do I. War or no war, I’ll stick it out here.” Te Wairua Tapu.

The Japanese were at first tolerant of the expatriate Christian missionaries who stayed at their posts, but as a priest and a foreigner, he was always suspect. Fr Douglas was often taken in for questioning, held for hours and accused of being a spy. He reluctantly obeyed the restrictive rules imposed by the Japanese until July 1943, when he felt obliged to visit some American guerillas in the nearby mountains who claimed to need his priestly services. When he arrived at their mountain hideout he discovered that they merely wanted company. His trek into the mountains had tragic consequences.

The trip aroused suspicions that he was spying for the resistance forces, and on 24 July 1943 Japanese soldiers took Fr Douglas from Pililla to Paete to interrogate him. He was tied to a pillar in the baptistry of the church in Paete and for three days he was tortured and beaten. Unwilling to divulge confidences or break the seal of confession, he refused to answer questions. On 27 July, as night was falling, the soldiers took Fr Douglas from the Church and dragged him to a military truck. The truck drove away from Paete towards Santa Cruz. When it returned that night, the soldiers were its only occupants. His body was never found.

At first glance Francis Douglas’ death at just 33 years of age seems so futile. Yet the paradox of Christianity is that in Christ we receive the power of life through his death. So it is with Fr Douglas. His self-sacrificial love has inspired hundreds of students at this College.

Te Wairua Tapu which inspired St John Baptist de La Salle and Fr Francis Douglas also lives in us, frees us, makes us sons and daughters of God, and draws each of us into service. In self-sacrificial love, in dying to ourselves, we exercise power.

Te Wairua Tapu sends us into the world to be powerful people. We are to use computers, engage in politics, run dairy farms, manage plumbing firms, be scientists, teachers, lawyers, builders, electricians, economists, mothers and fathers. But we are to grace all these exercises of power with the spirit of the Gospel. Whatever power we possess - and everyone among us this morning has some power to act and to accomplish - we need to shape our power in the world for the world. We need to make sure that, the more powerful we are, the more we are men and women for others.

Let me return to Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. There is only one way to assure that our exercise of power in the world will not corrupt us or cause harm to others. Our exercise of power in the world must be inspired by te Wairua Tapu. Our every thought and word and gesture must reflect the presence of God within us, and then we will, each in our own way, renew the face of the earth. Let us conclude by invoking the power of te Wairua Tapu:

Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love.
V. Send forth your Spirit, and they shall be created
R. And you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen

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