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Africa Magazine,

St. Patrick's Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, Ireland

Wonder with the Word

Fr Dermot Connolly

 

Fr Dermot encounters the Word of God against a backdrop of human life: in the story and poetry of the Bible, and in the art and the people of Africa - and elsewhere. As in life, word and image and deed go together; as the Word comes in different modes, the author adopts a variety of styles in writing, and each article is illustrated by a batik or drawing, most of them by African artists. We are invited to wonder with the Word that makes such a wayward challenge to our hearts.

 

A member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Fr Dermot, graduated from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, in 1967, after which he spent some ten years teaching Scripture in St Patrick’s seminary in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. However, most of his adult life has been spent as a missionary in Nigeria, where for many years he led a Bible Study group in a large parish in the city of Lagos. This led to a workbook on the Psalms, A Book of Praises, published by Veritas in 1987. He has now retired from Nigeria to his own native Ireland.

©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine

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So, my brothers and sisters, when you 

come together for the meal, wait for one another.

1 Corinthians 11:33

 

June 2020: The world is several months into the Covid-19 pandemic, taking cautious steps to exit. We have a long way to go. A new disease, with no known cure; the only strategy: stop the virus spreading from one person to another. Like urban warfare, it’s mobile and lethal, with the greatest danger at the gathering-places of our lives – at our work and worship and play; in our schools and homes; at the skin of our bodies. “When you come together.” 

 

In Kiltegan we’ve been on lockdown since the Unparaded St Patrick’s Day 2020: a large community of St Patrick’s Missionaries in various stages and conditions of life. One group is in nursing care, others are counted among “the over-70s and the vulnerable” (within the meaning of the law!), and some still active and in office. And of course, the great, dedicated people who care for us and work with us. Stories of courage and kindness, ingenuity and integrity continue to decorate the Covid-19 narrative. We have our own local heroes.

 

The Coronavirus itself is deadly, trailing its own tragedies. As yet there is neither vaccine nor cure, so like everyone else we try to prevent it spreading, in constant vigilance, by washing our hands, physical distancing, and staying at home. Innocuous enough, you might imagine; things anyone could do, young or old. In fact, those three needs – hand sanitation, distancing, and self-isolation – have upturned the world of humanity as we have known it. 

 

Like other buildings where people gather – stadiums, theatres, schools, markets – churches too had to be closed, and religious services drastically curtailed. Funerals were “private,” with grief left unattended, as mourners and friends must stand their prescribed distance. More sadness as first communions, confirmations and weddings were postponed or diminished. Masses live-streamed or broadcast on national television; it helped indeed, but we couldn’t come together. And Pope Francis prayed alone in an empty rain-drenched St Peter’s Square.

 

In our cocoon, there could be no large gatherings; 2-metres the measure expected in chapel, dining hall, TV room, even in the open air. A classroom which had formerly held over 80 students would allow only 18 when reconfigured for 2-metre spacing. As a result, we were unable to celebrate Holy Week and Easter as a community – a body-blow we shared with believers the world over. To proclaim and celebrate the Risen Lord, is at the heart of what we do as priests; it is what all Christians do, as St Paul reminded the Corinthians.  

As often as you eat this bread, then, and drink this cup, 

you are proclaiming the Lord’s death until he comes. 

(1 Cor 11:26) 

 

St Paul and the Corinthians may have something to teach us for when we regroup after Covid-19. There were rich and poor in Corinth, and competing loyalties – ‘I belong to Paul!’ ‘I belong to Cephas!’ ‘I belong to Christ!’ They did not mix easily, even when gathered for the Eucharist. (1 Cor 1:10-13; 11:17-34) Paul encourages and argues, but ends with a simple tenderness: When you come together for the meal, wait for one another. As he wrote later in the letter: Love is patient; love is kind. (1 Cor 13:4) Love waits.

September/October 2020

When you come together

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​Psalm 78 tells the story of the people of Israel and their Exodus from Egypt to the mountain of Zion which God loves. (Ps 78:68) The psalmist called it a mashal, a teaching, a parable: I will open my mouth in a parable / and utter hidden lessons of the past. (Ps 78:2) 

 

The psalm describes the Exodus, saying that the people on that journey were a defiant and rebellious generation. (Ps 78:8) They resisted every step of the way: 

Yet again they turned and tested God; they provoked the Holy One of Israel. (Ps 78:41) 

 

They strayed, faithless like their ancestors;

they betrayed him like a 

treacherous bow. 

(Ps 78:57)

 

A disturbing poem, and it goes on long enough – the second-longest psalm in the Bible. But woven through its conflicts is a God who behaves like a shepherd. Could this be the parable?

By day he led them with a cloud;

throughout the night, with a light of fire. 

He split the rocks in the desert.

He gave them plentiful drink, 

as from the deep. 

(Ps 78:14-15)

 

He had brought out his people like sheep,

leading them in the desert like a flock.

He had led them safely with nothing to fear,

while the sea engulfed their foes. 

(Ps 78:52-53)

 

A later practitioner said about the shepherd’s craft: “When he has brought out all his sheep, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” (John 10:4) It is the classic Biblical image of the shepherd but, as Jesus well knew, only half the parable.

 

What of those who can’t keep up? Listen: “The children are weak, and the sheep and the cows which have calved make it hard for me. If they are driven too hard, even for one day, the whole flock will die....For my part, I shall move at a slower pace, according to the pace of the flock I am driving and the children.” It could be any time, any war zone, any wasted earth; in fact, it is the voice of the Patriarch Jacob, another shepherd. (Genesis 33:13-14)

 

Psalm 78 completes the parable with David, who is to be shepherd of Jacob:

And he chose his servant David,

and took him away from the sheepfolds.

From the care of the ewes he brought him

to be shepherd of Jacob, his people,

of Israel his own possession. 

(Ps 78:70-71)

 

The shepherd not only leads but accompanies. The Hebrew idiom behind “the care of the ewes” is literally “from after” and is most often translated “following.” Or as we might put it, the shepherd looks after the flock.

He tended them with blameless heart;

with his skilful hands he led them. (Psalm 78:72)

May 2020

Following the Sheep

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