“I am the gate of the sheepfold.”
Some people will have just one vivid memory of the 2nd April, 2005. It was the day Pope John Paul the Second died – the greatest and best shepherd of our lifetime. That is the only thing that most people remember about that day.
But the other thing that I remember from that day is that it was also the day I heard of the death of Dennis, the greatest church leader I have ever met personally. (Admittedly, I never met the Pope.) Not one, but two very great shepherds died that day.
Our Holy Father’s story is well-known, but it bears re-telling one more time – especially this bit.
Like most people my age, I grew up in fear. It was not a fear that we thought about very much, but it was always there at the back of our minds. That fear was called technically “mutually assured destruction” - the knowledge that at any moment either the Americans or the Russians could press one button and begin a nuclear war which could - no one really knew what would happen - but could annihilate the whole world.
All of our young lives we lived on that knife edge of mutually assured destruction.
That is no longer true – at least not to the same extent. The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe has largely ended that fear. With the collapse of communism, there was also the collapse of both the physical and the spiritual barriers between people, most notably the Berlin wall in 1989. Of course, the world is not entirely safe today, but it is a lot safer than it used to be.
Many, many people contributed to that peace making. But I firmly believe that the person who contributed the most of all was the man we called JP2. It was his intervention at the head of the whole Polish church that brought about peaceful revolutions first in Poland, and then throughout Eastern Europe and finally in Russia itself. I think this great act of peace-making may well be the greatest achievement not just of that pope but of any pope there has ever been. Not to put too fine a point on it, I believe his faith and his fortitude may well have saved the entire world.
Obviously, his time eventually came to an end. But like every good Christian, he was committed to giving everything he had, right until the end. Like St Paul, he ran the race to the finish; he fought the good fight to the end. Let us pray for him that God may receive him into Paradise. And let us pray also for the current pope that he may face the new challenges which threaten the world with the same faith and fortitude.
Dennis’ story is not so well-known.
I met him twelve years ago when I was working in the Philippines.
He was the lay minister of a tiny church community called D------ - a small, previously un-evangelised fishing community on the east coast of Luzon; a remote inaccessible place beyond the Sierra Madre, on the dry arid Pacific coast.
In the daytime, he worked for the town council; in the evenings and weekends he worked for the Church. But, whatever time of day or night people came to him, and for whatever purpose they looked to him, they found him eager to help, eager to serve and eager to give the Glory to God. Day and night, he buzzed up and down the coast on his little two-stroke Yamaha, doing what ever he could to make the Lord loved and the people happy. No matter what the dangers on the road from bandits, terrorists, landslides or even plain old accidents. When the flood came in Eastern Isabella that cost 20,000 lives, he was the natural choice to co-ordinate the rescue in his area. I have worked in many countries and have met many local authority bureaucrats and church volunteers, but never one quite like him.
In the end, it was the plain old accident that got him. On the 24th March, 2005, he came off his motorbike, while going about his work; as the Americans say “in the line of duty”. He lingered in hospital for a few days and never recovered consciousness. For a time, his whole community felt lost, rudder-less, fatherless. Then his wife took charge and continued his work.
There is an Amerindian tribe that I used to work with that has a tradition. At funerals they make no show of grief. No weeping. No outward sign of sorrow. They say: “there is no need for sorrow when a good person goes to God. There is a need for each of us to help fill up their place.”
So, when one of their elders dies, at the funeral, they dig up part of his or her cassava crop. For them, cassava is the staple – not just of their diet – but of their entire way of life. If you’re Irish, think of it like potatoes. But it’s more than that. It is their food, their drink, their clothing, their building materials, their everything – even their make-up. So, at a funeral, part of the cassava is dug up and the root is divided and shared out among the mourners. Everyone – man, woman and child – gets a piece. And when each of them goes home, they plant it in their own fields. And every time they harvest, they give thanks for all the people who have gone before them marked with the sign of Faith; all the people whose traditions they carry on; all the people who have passed on to them the important things in life.
I ask each of you here to think of one good and holy person you have known – one person who has died, that you hold dear. And in your heart of hearts, imagine taking a piece of her or his root and planting it in your own field.
Paul O'Reilly SJ