Bishop Glen John Provost
Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Lake Charles, Louisiana
March 23, 2016
“Today this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Luke 4:21
By 10:15 on the morning of March 4th of this year, it was over. ISIS terrorists had descended upon a home for the disabled and elderly in Aden, South Yemen, served by the Missionaries of Charity. When they left, they had slaughtered sixteen people, including four sisters and five young Christian Ethiopians who came to warn the religious of the impending danger. They were all tied up and shot in the head, their skulls bashed in. The priest chaplain quickly consumed the Blessed Sacrament, before being abducted by the ISIS culprits, presumably to be later used as a pawn for ransom or a prisoner exchange.
The Superior, Sister Sally, was in the convent, saw the carnage from a distance, and took refuge in a large refrigerator. She would survive to describe the bloodshed, identify the bodies, and retrieve the remains. Learning of the killings, Pope Francis sent a message immediately via the Yemen foreign office which read: “I thank them—little M.C. martyrs.” Sister Sally later recounted the martyrdom to her superior. She is also a marked woman, whom the authorities are intent on evacuating because they fear ISIS will return for her. The ISIS objective is clear, to erase the Christian presence.
Sister Sally was greatly troubled because she had not died with her sisters. Her superior reassured her. If she had not survived, there would have been no witness. ISIS knew exactly when to attack. They knew the routine of the convent and the home to which the sisters were ever faithful. She concluded with these words, “And because of their faithfulness they were in the right place at the right time and were ready when the Bridegroom came.” Through their obedience they had become victims with Christ.
It is sad to say but true that this approach of faith seems like nonsense to the world. But the more like nonsense it appears to others, the more profound its meaning. Lulled by its comforts, oblivious to the consequences of faith, the world is too consumed with its own pursuits to concern itself with a trifling thing like obedience. Yet, the Christian witness is all about this obedience to faith. In the words of the Letter to the Hebrews, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered” (Hebrews 5:8)). And the text continues, “[W]hen he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:9).
Obedience is the key that opens the door. St. Paul realizing this truth would point to the cross as the ultimate obedience. Had not Christ accepted the cross in obedience to the Father’s will? St. Paul writes, “[H]e humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). The cross is the consummate contradiction to the meaningless pursuit of self and, more than that, the source of redemption through suffering.
Only through the obedient embrace of the cross can we be redeemed. Again to quote St. Paul, “Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ on behalf of his body, which is the church” (Colossians 1:24). St. Paul knows that his sufferings, whatever they are and whenever they come, will be a share in his Master’s victory.
Four women who worked with the sisters, one the cook for fifteen years, screamed, “Don’t kill the Sisters! Don’t kill the Sisters!” They all met the same fate. No one who worked in this Christian home was to be spared. They were all witnesses, their only crime the imitation of Christ. In this obedience was their salvation.
As priests, we are called into deeper likeness with the person of Jesus Christ in whose priesthood we share. The mystery of priestly vocation is vitally linked to the person of Jesus Christ, such that to come to know Him more fully is to understand more profoundly our own vocation. Cross, obedience, fidelity, suffering—they are all part of the same vocation.
The “I AM” reveals Himself upon the cross. In doing do, He invites us to join ourselves to that cross. If through and by the cross we come to realize the “I AM,” then it is through the cross that we come to know who we are. In so far as we are priests of Jesus Christ, the identification is indispensable. Becoming one with the suffering Lord, we discover the “I AM.” We flee suffering at our own peril, and the deepest negation of our identity lies in our disobedience.
The Missionaries of Charity and their fellow Christian workers discovered Him on that fateful March morning. I ask myself, “What are my sufferings in comparison to these?”—modest sufferings, preoccupations of a selfish soul, but sufferings nonetheless and ultimately invitations to faithful obedience. May our sufferings—yours and mine—be a result of “faithfulness” so that we are “in the right place at the right time and [are] ready when the Bridegroom [comes].”
Bishop Glen John Provost