What can we say the kingdom of God is like?

Published on 14 Jun 2018

‘What can we say the kingdom of God is like? What parable can we find for it? It is like a mustard seed which at the time of its sowing in the soil is the smallest of all the seeds on earth; yet once it is sown it grows into the biggest shrub of them all and puts out big branches so that the birds of the air can shelter in its shade.’

Right after I was ordained, I spent five years working in the Amazon in South America. The area I worked in is called the Rupununi. That’s an area of Guyana about the size of Wales: 200 miles long; 150 miles wide. And over that 30,000 square miles, there are about 30,000 people all spread out across the dry savannah grassland.

And virtually all of them are Christian – in every sense of that word. I have never lived in a community more ordered to peace and to love than theirs.

And the reason that virtually all of them are Christian is the work of one extraordinary man called Cuthbert Cary Elwes of (I am proud to say) my religious order, the Society of Jesus – British Province. To modern ears, ‘Cuthbert’ sounds like a bit of a silly name, but don’t judge him by that. In 1909, one hundred and six years ago this month, Cuthbert was sent out by his superiors from Georgetown, the capital city of Guyana, into the interior of the Rupununi rain forest. He was missioned to go and make contact with the Amerindian peoples in the interior and see if any of them wanted to know about the Good News of Jesus Christ and its power to transform their lives. It was what Sir Humphrey would undoubtedly have described as a ‘courageous’ decision. At the time he was being sent, one of his superiors wrote that probably there was less than a fifty percent chance of them ever seeing him alive again (though perhaps wisely, he didn’t actually tell Cuthbert that).

In the following twelve years, which was all his superiors allowed him before they sent him to work somewhere else, Cuthbert walked from village to village throughout the Rupununi preaching the Good News and feeding the people with the bread of life.

He walked thousands of miles through jungle, rain-forest and dry hard savannah. He survived malaria, typhoid, dysentery and all sorts of diseases. And he evangelised an area the size of Wales.

{He reached as far north as Mount Roraima; as far south as Wai-Wai territory, what we now call Gunn’s strip.}

He was a man of tremendous faith, great courage and pretty strong legs! As a result of his work, there was a tremendous outpouring of the Holy Spirit throughout the Rupununi. All of the Church that exists today in the Rupununi, growing and developing throughout the country, is built on his original foundation and the rock of his faith.

When I arrived in the Rupununi, Cuthbert’s original mission territory had been divided up into three enormous parishes. My parish alone had 53 Catholic communities - in the two years I was there, we set up two more. The parish I was in now comprises around ten thousand people spread over twenty thousand square miles. Today the Church in the Rupununi has grown enormously from the single mustard seed of faith planted by Cuthbert Cary-Elwes almost a century ago in obedience to his Lord and ours, Jesus Christ.

He was certainly no saint: I’ve read his diaries. They talk very frankly about his good days and his bad days; his hopes and his despairs. He seems to have had rather more bad days than good days; more despairs than hopes. In fact, he comes across as a very ordinary bloke carrying out a very extra-ordinary mission under the most incredibly difficult circumstances. He constantly thought his mission was a failure. In fact, he never really saw its success. By the time the Church had really begun to grow in the Rupununi, his Jesuit Superiors had (in their wisdom and courage) sent him to spend the last twenty years of his life teaching in a school in Scotland – always something I try to look back on when I feel my own superiors have made another ‘courageous’ decision. As Jesus said, ‘one person sows; another reaps’. But I hope that in heaven, he looks with pride and joy at the Church that has grown from the seed he planted.

When asked about it in later life, he said that, as a young man, he had asked himself who Jesus really is. And the answer that had been given to him was that of St Peter: “You the Christ, the son of the living God.” And after that, he felt, there was really no alternative to a life composed from that reality. That is the faith on which the Church in the Rupununi was founded by the Lord.

So, the next time you do something for God that doesn’t seem to work out, or your superior, spouse or ‘significant other’ makes a ‘courageous’ decision for you, remember Cuthbert (it’s easier to remember a silly name) and pray that God will make just one of your mustard seeds – just one of your unseen, unrecorded and apparently unsuccessful good deeds – grow into something beautiful for God.

Let us pray that we may hold our calling to be faithful branches of His Tree and a true leaven for the World.

And let us profess our Faith in the God who planted his Church like a mustard seed in the World.

Paul O'Reilly SJ