My dear brothers of the Order of Friars Minor,
and all brothers, sisters and friends of our Franciscan Family,
May the Lord give you all His peace!
“Sing to the Lord, for he is gloriously triumphant!” This hymn of Moses and Miriam, offered on the banks of the Red Sea, expresses beautifully the theme of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity: our common vocation to continue this saving work of God; to lead all God’s children from slavery into the fullness of the freedom that his Son, Jesus, has won for all creation.
As the churches of the Caribbean, who prepared this year’s theme, remind us, slavery is – tragically! – not a thing of the past. Slavery is very much a part of our present. This can be seen in its enduring effects. As our Caribbean sisters and brothers noted, drawing upon their own experience, many contemporary challenges are themselves the legacy of a colonial past and slave trade: systemic poverty, violence, injustice, addiction to drugs and pornography, gang and domestic violence, and damaged familial relationships. Wherever human dignity is turned into a commercial commodity, can we be surprised to find such fruit?
Slavery is present not only in the effects of its past. It is also present in ways both new and old. How often have we heard Pope Francis decry the new forms of colonialism by which “developed nations” strive to maintain their lifestyles at the expense of the “least” of our sisters and brothers: children, the elderly, the materially poor, even “our Sister, Mother Earth”? Given the aggressive nature of this throwaway culture, is it any wonder that slavery itself endures? Today over 40 million people are enslaved. While most of these people labor in some of the world’s most impoverished post-colonial countries, there is virtually no nation in which someone is not enslaved.
As disciples of Jesus, in whose nakedness we Franciscans are called to walk, we cannot be silent, nor fail to respond in faith to the reality of such appalling sin – and this to the fullness of action to which our discipleship calls us.
At the outset of his ministry, Jesus offered a concise “mission statement” for his work. Drawing upon the writings of Isaiah, who himself had labored during Israel’s Babylonian exile, Jesus declared what kind of Messiah he would be: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim a year acceptable to the Lord (Luke 4: 18-19).”
Jesus was clear. He was – and forever is – not the Savior merely of souls. He is the Savior of the whole human person: of soul and body, and of the entire web of relationships to which we belong as whole persons, i.e., families, communities, indeed the whole of creation. For sin enslaves not only our souls. It enslaves each of us and the whole of us in ever widening circles of bondage. It was from such integral slavery that Jesus freed us, offering us in return that gift of integral salvation which he called the Kingdom of God: a kingdom of truth and life, a kingdom of holiness and grace, a kingdom of justice, love and peace.
If this was Jesus’ mission, then so, too, is it our mission as members of his Body – though a mission that no member can ever hope to fulfill on its own. No matter how sincere our individual efforts may be, no matter how devoted any one church may be to the realization of God’s Kingdom, Jesus’ mission belongs to the whole of his Body. Only together, as his one Body, can we Christians ever hope to fulfill what is ours to do for the women and men of our times: to live in such a way that they may believe in the victory that God has won for them in Jesus, his beloved Son, and rooted in this faith, know that together we do not labor in vain.
In a manner typical of their shared culture, our sisters and brothers in the Caribbean put this faith to music with The Right Hand of God. While this hymn deserves to be sung in its entirety, as I hope you will do in local celebrations of this year’s Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, a few stanzas suffice to express it.
The right hand of God
is writing in our land,
Writing with power and with love;
Our conflicts and our fears,
Our triumphs and our tears,
Are recorded by the right hand of God.
The right hand of God
is healing in our land,
Healing broken bodies, minds and souls;
So wondrous is its touch,
With love that means so much,
When we’re healed
by the right hand of God.
The right hand of God
is planting in our land,
Planting seeds of freedom, hope and love;
In these many-peopled lands,
Let his children all join hands,
And be one with the right hand of God.
My dear brothers, the Lord is gloriously triumphant. Horse and chariot he has cast into the sea. No matter how often they may emerge to threaten the liberating victory that God has won for his children in Jesus, his beloved Son, we know that our labor to secure it has itself been secured in the same Jesus who calls all his disciples to be one, as he and his Father are one “that the world may believe that you sent me (John 17:21).”
With every blessing to you all in your service of the Gospel, I remain,