According to Abba Apollo, a desert father who lived about 1,700 years ago, the devil has no knees. He had them once, but they atrophied through disuse and withered away because he would not bend his own will in humble obedience to God.
His proud motto is “Non Serviam – I will not serve!” In the guise of a serpent, he enticed our first parents to commit the primal act of disobedience, promising them that this would lead to their equality with God; and, ever since, our wounded human nature has been disposed to disobedience, and to pursuing its own desires in radical autonomy.
Whereas true liberty is to be found only in obedient service to God, some people now try to elevate disobedience into a principle by maintaining that the essence of liberty is “the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”.
Such a false idea could hardly have been expressed more clearly if Satan had expounded it himself, because it means arrogating to men the prerogatives of God.
St. John the Baptist was forthright in his criticism of the ‘viper’s brood’ of his own generation who practised values that effectively contradicted the faith they professed. How damning must his verdict be on our generation, in which the hearts of so many Catholics have become disobedient, and have turned away from the wisdom of the just to a watered-down religion of Catholicism-lite?
“Of course, I’m a Catholic – but I…” How often have you heard someone say a sentence that starts like that? “I’m a Catholic but I don’t go to Mass”; or even “I’m a Catholic, but I’m ‘pro-choice’”.
Such people have been seduced by the blandishments of a society that seems to have assigned itself the task of rending asunder – and setting at odds – things and people whom God has willed to be joined together in dynamic complementarity.
This dismal and destructive process includes the separation of:
life from faith;
knowledge from wisdom;
mercy from justice;
culture from tradition;
rights from duties;
pleasure from virtue;
procreation from marital relations; and
gender from sex.
This list just goes on and on. And, of course, the Church now faces the counter-cultural challenge of trying to bring them all back into some sort of harmonious unity. The more the world encourages us to split our lives into separate, unrelated compartments, the more we need the Church’s help to reconcile these false antitheses, and to integrate our lives once more.
Here in your Cathedral you have a marvellous aid to that end in your Holy House Chapel. The Cathedral is dedicated to Our Lady of Walsingham, and some of you have visited her Shrine in England. In 1061, the Blessed Virgin appeared there to a lady called Richeldis, and asked her to build a life-size representation of the Holy House in Nazareth in which the Annunciation had occurred. Walsingham then became England’s Nazareth; and by building a version of that Holy House here, you have made Houston America’s Nazareth.
At the Holy House of Nazareth – and Walsingham – we see in the domestic community of the Holy Family the perfect integration of all the things and people whom the world seeks to divide; and in a Cathedral and an Ordinariate that has that Holy House as its centre and inspiration, it is to be expected that many hearts which might otherwise be disobedient should be being turned to the wisdom of the just.
When I come here, I am always encouraged to find that the graces flowing from the Holy House is helping to form Catholics who are committed to striving for sanctity -despite their very human frailty- by integrating the demands of their faith into every aspect of their lives.
Not in order to become bigots or fanatics, but to become genuine practising Catholics: the sort of people whose sentences start with “I’m a Catholic, so of course I…”, rather than with “I’m a Catholic but I….”
However, when I come here, I always have to remind you all that yours isn’t the only Holy House on this side of the Atlantic: we also have one at Casa Walsingham down in Medellín, Colombia.
And there, too, we are doing our best to turn the hearts of the disobedient to the wisdom of the just in our programmes for some of the children who live or work in the street, or who are in grave social or moral danger there.
This is the 15th year that I have come to preach here, so some of you have heard my story many times. Nevertheless, I always have to explain to the newcomers that I became involved in this work when I was “adopted” by a group of street-children when I became stranded in Colombia whilst on holiday there in 1982. I sought the help of the local Catholic Archbishop for my new friends, and what had started as a simple vacation began to turn into a vocation.
At that stage I was an Anglican, and I eventually ended up working as an Anglican priest at the Shrine in Walsingham in England. And in the Holy House there I started a charity called Let The Children Live! to support the work that the Catholic Church was doing with the street-children in Medellín. We gave the charity that rather dramatic name because so many of the children whom I had got to know had fallen victim to the violence for which the city was then notorious.
I spent all my holidays working as a volunteer with a Catholic programme for the street children. Thanks to Our Lady’s gentle prodding, I eventually realised that I had to go out to live there, and to become a Catholic; and in 1995 I was ordained as a Catholic priest in Medellín, with a special brief to develop the work of Let The Children Live!
The power of that work lies, of course, in Our Lady’s own hands, and with her support it has developed programmes for street-children and other boys and girls who are at high moral or social risk. These include children with special educational needs, and teenage- and even pre-teenage- mothers and their babies. The charity always tries to respond to the changing situation of the hundreds of children who seek its help.
Since I was here last December, an additional group of children has started coming to Casa Walsingham. These boys and girls are not Colombian but Venezuelan, and they form a tiny fragment of the one million refugees who have fled to Colombia this year in order to escape from the appalling chaos being caused by the disastrous policies of the socialist government in Venezuela.
There are more than 60,000 such refugees in Medellín alone, and one sees them at nearly every major intersection in the central area of the city. I must stress that these are not economic migrants, motivated by a mere desire for a better standard of living, but genuine refugees from hunger and violence.
Inflation in Venezuela this year is believed to be heading towards 1,000,000%. Food there is in short supply, and it has been reported that the average monthly wage is not enough to buy even a quarter of a chicken. Medical services seem to be on the verge of collapse; and, according to the statistics, the inhabitants of Caracas are ten times more likely to fall victim to homicide than are those of Houston.
There seems to be little chance of a peaceful and democratic solution to the crisis, and it is very likely that the flood of refugees from Venezuela into Colombia will continue or increase in 2019 because they simply have nowhere else to go. Many of the refugees are children, and we have found cases of acute malnutrition and stunted growth. Some of the children have serious dental problems; and in many cases, they only possess what they have been able to carry in a small bag.
The plight of the Venezuelan refugees has been under-reported in the press, and Colombia is being left to bear this burden with precious little assistance from the international community. So far, the Colombians have shown remarkable solidarity and patience; but the risk of violence is increasing as more and more people are having to compete for very limited resources.
So what is Let The Children Live! doing to help? Well, although we are a very small organisation, we believe that we must not turn away empty handed those whom Our Lady brings to the door of her house.
By October this year we had helped 83 refugee families; and we are currently working with 44 Venezuelan children every weekday – in addition, of course, to some 300 Colombian children who are continuing to benefit from our other programmes.
We are helping the refugee children with food and clothes and toys. We are providing educational and recreational activities to keep the children safe and occupied whilst their parents are trying to earn a few pesos. We are also bringing the parents together for mutual support, so they can start to put their lives together again without being overly dependent on us.
I know that, considering the large number of children who need our help, this response doesn’t sound impressive: indeed, it is woefully inadequate. But at least we are making a significant difference to the lives of those children whom we are helping.
We should very much like to do more: but this year, unfortunately, has not been a good one for raising funds in the UK because of all of the uncertainty over Brexit. Our charity there is already overstretched, and its reserves are now perilously low.
Let The Children Live! is a 501(3)(c) non-profit in the U.S. The American charity has helped by sending $3,000 to Colombia each month, but most of this has come from donations we received last year.
In view of all this, we anticipate having to reduce our budget in Colombia by about 25% from January onwards, so I must confess that the outlook for our children next year really looks pretty grim. We shall be having to cut back at the very time when we ought to be expanding.
However, I always remember that when Our Lady appeared at Walsingham, she promised that all who sought her there would find succour. I have therefore come as a pilgrim to her Holy House here in Houston to seek her aid for my children. I am asking her not only for the usual generous response to my appeal here this weekend, but also for help in arranging future events to generate income between my visits to Houston.
In addition to that, we are looking for someone with excellent communication skills in English and Spanish to help us to apply for grants from Trusts and Foundations here in the U.S. So if you know anyone who might be interested in a biggish challenge for a smallish salary – what’s not to like? – please ask them to contact us.
And if you’re thinking of making your Will – well, we have never received a legacy from someone in the U.S., so it would appear that people who support Let The Children Live! just go on and on living! Perhaps that may be something that you might like to bear in mind… And, above all, please keep us in your prayers.
St. John the Baptist moved the hearts of many of his hearers to repentance, and to integrate their faith fully into their lives. May he and Our Lady of Walsingham intercede with her Son to move your hearts to respond to the plight of some of the least of Our Lord’s brothers and sisters in Medellín by helping Let The Children Live! May Jesus Christ be praised! Amen.
This essay is an edited version of a homily preached on the Third Sunday in Advent 2018 in the Ordinariate Cathedral of Our Lady of Walsingham, Houston, by Fr. Peter Walters.