Sunday, 13 September 2015

Twenty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time - read Mark 8: 27-35

"For whosoever will save his life, shall lose it: and whosoever shall lose his life for My sake and the gospel, shall save it."

Pedro grew up in a comfortable middle class family, in one of the world's most vibrant and poorest cities.  He received a good education - a rare privilege in those parts - but he never really applied himself and his results were decidedly average.  This was of no consequence, of course, because immediately after graduation he was given an undemanding sinecure in the offices above his father's factory.

It sometimes happened that, as he passed through the factory gate after work to the waiting car, a small child or emaciated young woman would tug at his jacket and beg for a small coin.  Pedro was not an unkind man, and the money made no difference to him, and so he always gave generously before getting into the car and being taken home.  He never looked back at the beggars, soon forgetting them, and so he never saw his father's security guards giving them a beating and sending them on their way.

When he returned home, he spent his time playing on computer games, or going to a trendy bar with his friends in the wealthy central district of the city.  Beggars rarely dared approach this neighbourhood; the beatings were much worse. 

Every Sunday, Pedro donned his best clothes and went with his parents to Mass in the magnificent cathedral at the top of the hill.  He listened respectfully to the Archbishop's vague, comforting but essentially meaningless words, at least until his concentration broke and he started playing on his phone, and he left with his conscience appeased, looking piously at the sky and therefore failing to notice the elderly man with a withered foot sat at the foot of the marble steps, pleading for alms.

Life continued like this for a few years, and Pedro slipped slowly and imperceptibly into lethargy and depression.  He was unable to put his finger on it, but he felt unfulfilled, somehow wasted.  One Saturday morning he confided this to his friends, and they simply grinned mischievously and told him that he needed to party harder. On his way home, his reverie was broken when his car suddenly screamed to a halt and his driver swore, before getting out of the car and loudly remonstrating with someone in the road.  Pedro got out to see what was going on.  He had never seen this part of the town before, for all he must have been driven through it many times.  The dusty street was lined with crumbling buildings, the air was filled with the cries of hungry children and the yowls of fighting cats, and the smell was such as he had never imagined.  Covering his nose and mouth with a handkerchief, he went round to the front of the car, where his driver was gesticulating wildly at an old man in a tattered grey robe with a large rosary about his waist.  The old man was shouting back just as fiercely, and with his body was shielding a little boy, who had fallen in the road, from the driver who had taken out his cudgel. 

"What's going on?" asked Pedro.
"This little imp leapt out in front of the car, and this old fool is trying to stop me from teaching him a lesson, Señor!"
"He didn't leap, he fell! He's lame, and weakened by malnutrition.  Don't you dare lay a hand on him!" shouted the old man.
"That's enough, Carlos, leave him be," ordered Pedro.
The driver scowled, and got back into the car, muttering under his breath.

The old man held his ground, looking suspiciously at Pedro, while Pedro - intrigued - looked at his rosary and asked, "Are you a priest, señor?"
"I am," he replied.
"Then what are you doing in this awful place?!"
The old priest was taken aback, and responded, "Where else would a priest be?"
"Why, priests should be in the city, in a proper house with a comfortable lifestyle, as befits their dignity," said Pedro, righteously.
"Young man, you have a lot to learn about dignity, and about life in general, it would seem."
Pedro was insulted, and retorted, "I live very well, thank you! I have a good job and a house and a university degree!"
"Oh yes? And how do you spend it?"
Confused, Pedro asked, "What do you mean, spend it? You don't spend these things, these are things that are, things that you just have."
The old Franciscan gave a warm smile and beckoned Pedro to come closer, before whispering almost conspiratorially, "No, my boy.  Life is not for having and hoarding.  It is not like money that can stay in the bank forever until you use it.  Life is a tremendous gift from God, and it slowly drips away whether you use it or not.  If you want to make the most of life, you must spend it for others."
"Are you saying I must come here and live like you?"
"No!" cried the priest.  "God has put you where you are for a reason, just as He put me where I am for a reason.  Carry on as you are, and if you pay attention you will see that God gives you plenty of opportunities to give of yourself for little ones like this," and he pointed to the little boy who had dusted himself off and was limping away. 

Something new was burning inside of Pedro as he continued on his journey home.  Now he paid attention to his surroundings, and more than once had the car stop so he could talk to a beggar and plant a copper or two into an outstretched hand.  When he arrived home, his purse was as exhausted as his driver's anger.

Rather than going straight to his room to switch on his computer, he called on his mother.  For the first time, he noticed how sad she looked from years of boredom and loneliness, with nothing to strive for.  He sat with her for hours, talking about his encounter with the old priest, and all manner of other things, making her laugh as he had when he was a little boy.  It was only when her smile lit up the room that he realised how long it had been absent.

At Mass the following day, Pedro listened to the Gospel with new ears, and understood it with new heart, and on his way out he noticed for the first time the old man with the withered foot, and went over to introduce himself.  His mother, seeing this and remembering the conversation with her son the day before, smiled proudly, and went over to offer the man some lunch.  His father walked on oblivious, his mind as usual occupied by the worries of a factory owner.

Arriving at work on Monday morning, Pedro greeted the lady begging at the gate, and offered her a generous wage if she would set up a stall in the security guards' hut, preparing and distributing food to anyone who came by in need.  The disgruntled guards were soon won over by her infectious enthusiasm, and before long they were following her instructions, chopping vegetables and fetching supplies.

When Pedro's father walked past and saw this, he marched over to demand an explanation, but as he approached he felt a tug on his trouser leg, and looked down into the wide eyes of a little girl, who was hungrily devouring a quesadilla.  She looked up at him and said, shyly, "Gracias, señor!" before running off happily.  The factory worries suddenly seemed very small, and he went on his way feeling more alive than he ever had before. 

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