Monday, 8 August 2011

20th Sunday in Ordinary Time - Year A

Isaiah 56:1,6-7; Romans 11:13-15,29-32; Matthew 15:21-28

As a hospital chaplain I was once called to the bedside of dying man in his seventies. His daughter kept vigil by his bed and clearly he had but a few hours of life left. She was not Catholic and neither was her father. Not a Canaanite woman as in today's gospel, but a pagan nonetheless. She asked me to baptise her father.

It was an awkward moment for me as I felt I might have been guilty of taking advantage of his helplessness by baptising him. 'He's had more than seventy years to be baptised' I suggested, 'isn't it a bit unfair to do it now when he is unconscious?'

'But he always wanted to be a Catholic, it's just that he could never bring himself to approach a priest. That's just the way he was.'

I was still reluctant. I had passed that bed a number of times over the days he was in hospital and had never been asked to baptise him.

Then a strange thing happened. The woman at the bed came and stood in front of me, looking into my face. 'Look,' she said, 'I'm telling you my father wanted to be a Catholic but because he was a dysfunctional kind of person he was never able to get round to it. Now I'm asking you to baptise him.'

My response took me completely by surprise. I felt a great surge of admiration, I could almost say love, for that woman. She had (verbally) grabbed me by my shirt-front and, full of the great desire she had that her father should now receive what he had always wanted, made it clear she was not about to take no for an answer.

The man was baptised and confirmed and passed away a few hours later. A few months later the woman knocked on the door of the presbytery and said, 'Now it's my turn to become a Catholic.'

Such episodes in a priest's life are very important, very meaningful. They set in train a process of reflection which can go on for years.

It was when we read the gospel of the feeding of the five thousand that this woman came back to my mind, and now again today. What caused me to think of her then were those twelve baskets of scraps left over from the meal. What was going to happen to them? Who was going to eat them? The children of Israel had been fed, their stomachs were full, so were those baskets of food left over to be just thrown away? Unthinkable!

In my mind's eye I saw those baskets and each of them had a sign "FOR THE GENTILES".

Indeed, the very existence of those scraps was a foreshadowing of the ministry to the gentiles; as were the stone jars of wine left over from the wedding feast of Cana. Talking this over with a friend he said 'That Canaanite woman was looking for those scraps!'

As the responsorial psalm sings today: So will your ways be known upon earth and all nations learn your saving help.

Further reflection on my ministry at the hospital leads me to appreciate how the presence of a priest in the wards every day, a priest wearing a Roman collar, is very much an echo of Jesus' presence in 'the region of Tyre and Sidon'.

Jesus must have known that to make himself present there, so close to pagan territory, would inevitably 'draw out' the pagans; and it could not have been a surprise when: out came a Canaanite woman from that district …

Jesus well understood that he was sent by the Father to the People of Israel as their long-awaited and promised Saviour. As he tells the woman: I was sent only to the lost sheep of the House of Israel. What the woman did was make plain the truth that implicit in his mission was a necessary openness to the entire world. This fact needed to be firmly established in the minds of his disciples if the newborn Church was ever to undertake her mission to the pagans.

Besides, the woman's daughter was 'tormented by a devil'. Is the devil more interested in the pagans than the Lord? Does the Saviour of the world intend to save only the Jews, or the Catholics? Certainly not! If he came through the Jews he came for all the nations.


Let the peoples praise you, O God;
let all the peoples praise you.
May God still give us his blessing
till the ends of the earth revere him.

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