‘How Many Loaves Have You?’ This was the theme of Women’s World Day of Prayer, Friday 4 March. At the service that day in Greenisland, Belfast, Pat Coyle (2nd from left in photo) of the Jesuit Communication Centre was the invited speaker. The Day of Prayer was celebrated in Churches not only throughout Ireland but in over 120 countries worldwide, with women and men of all Christian denominations taking part. This year the service was prepared and written by women in Chile. They spoke of their country’s fight for justice across the centuries: the factory workers and their families who walked across the Atacama desert only to be massacred in their thousands; the miners working in dangerous mines; the ‘disappeared’ of Pinochet’s brutal dictatorship, and the mothers who kept vigil for them – all were remembered through scripture, song and prayer. Read Pat Coyle’s reflection below.
WOMEN’S WORLD DAY OF PRAYER
Friday 4 March, 2011
The Shining Host
In vain you try
To smother my song:
A million children
In chorus sing it
Beneath the sun.
In vain you try,
To break my verse
The children sing it under God.
That’s a poem by Gabriela Mistral, the Noble prizewinning Chilean poet, diplomat, teacher, and cultural minister. Her parents were of mixed Basque and Indian heritage, and she was born and raised in a small village in the Andean mountains. Her father, a teacher left home when she was three. She is seen as a defender of all racial minorities and the ‘mixed race mother of the Nation’. A freethinking and committed Christian, one commentator has said all her poems ‘have an accent of prayer’. The poem I just read is called –fittingly for this theme of nourishment and bread – The Shining Host. She died in 1957 and the voices of the women of Chile that we have heard and prayed with tonight bear witness to her words of hope and make the truth of them incarnate.
And the same is true for the Gospel we’ve just read.
On a sunny Sunday in June 2004, I went to mass the day after an important constitutional decision had been voted upon across the Republic. Our Minister for Justice at the time had proposed a citizenship referendum to end the then automatic right to Irish citizenship for all babies born on the island of Ireland no matter where their parents hailed from. Some people saw the move as a direct attempt to significantly diminish the rights of the many refugees, migrants and asylum seekers who had come to our shores hoping to build a better life for themselves.
To-night we hear the voices of the Chilean women keeping alive their stories of oppression and the overcoming of it. ‘Remembering’ can yield the great gift of compassion and empathy for those whom we may come across who find themselves in the position we were once in. We remember that the wheel of oppression, can turn and the oppressed can become the oppressor. We were a wealthy country then and most (not all) had more than enough. But fear that ‘the stranger’ might diminish us can be strong. Maybe we forgot to tell our stories, forgot to remember, because the referendum of the day before was passed with an eighty per cent majority. My community voted in the school hall attached to our church, and we returned the highest majority in the entire country – eighty-six per cent in favour of the change.
I sat and listened as the Gospel was read, the very same story as chosen for this World Day of Prayer by the woman of Chile. A two thousand year old voice new born down the years, journeying through continents and cultures- there is enough for everyone, there is more than enough. Twelve full baskets of leftover food more- if only we -break open our hearts. Broken hearts yield broken bread and it is heart breaking when our country, our community, fails itself and its highest dreams. But nourishment for others can come from our broken heartedness.
In this service we have been asked searching questions. How many loaves have you? What are your gifts? What can you share? They are questions that deserve time and prayer. It’s a tough challenge to bring about the kind of change the Christian women of Chile are calling for in the prayers we have prayed tonight.
It’s a profound quest and so the gift I am praying for, and committing to actively cultivate and offering to share with others is the gift of attentiveness.
Attentiveness means that I have woken up and am aware that I will live, love and die in a world where others, near and far, will do the same. It is a state of awareness of the world I inhabit, the culture that forms me, the beliefs systems I’m part of. More than that, it is an acknowledgement that yes I am thrown into this world, but I am also part of it, engaged with it, and all of it is a matter of concern to me.
But then I think of my country and the eighty-six per cent of good people who voted to withdraw the right of citizenship to babies of non-Irish parents born in Ireland. Many were engaged and concerned with their being in this world and what that means. But engagement and attentiveness can be very often only to our own needs and our own fears. Attentiveness is important but not enough. It needs a moral and spiritual compass. For me Christianity is that compass.
And Christianity of is radical. For Christianity proclaims the love of Christ for all and is concerned with in the first instance and weighted absolutely towards those who are poor, persecuted, exploited, vulnerable, struggling for justice – be they in Chile, or Ireland or any other country in our world.
Attentiveness informed by a radical Christianity is a scary gift to ask for – and a powerful gift to give.
It is truly challenging, but ultimately simple.
The industrial workers of Chile walked. The miner’s wives in Lota made bread. The mothers of the disappeared simply turned up and kept vigil. Our own families of the disappeared did not forget and thereby did not let us forget. The disciples were tired, anxious for the rest Jesus had promised them and overwhelmed by the size of the crowd. “You give them something to eat”, Jesus told them. And then with only two loaves and a few fish, he fed everyone. We don’t have to do the work that is God’s. We simply break open our hearts and offer our fragile love. We follow the urge of poet and ‘mixed race mother of the nation’, Gabriela Mistral who says:
Do not trample the earth,
Do not crush the sweet smelling fruit,
For love of it,
And give it your mouth.