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  • Writer's pictureFr. Paul MacNeil

Habit 5: Service (7 habits of effective Catholics)

7 Habits of Effective Catholics: Habit 5: Service


My own understanding of the importance of service in my life didn't come all at once. I would like to share with you another story. Without going into details about how I got there, in the summer of 1992, I spent 2 months in Calcutta working with the poorest of the poor. I originally intended to use Calcutta as a starting point for further travels in Kashmir, but I decided to stay for reasons which will become clearer as you get to know me.

Our work schedule as volunteers was brutal. We started at 6 am after about an hour's walk to get there from where we were staying, and our work consisted in moving the male patients out of their beds into a kind of gathering area where they either sat on the floor or on concrete benches. We had to take all the bed linen and clothing, boil them, and beat them against a concrete wash rack while some volunteers helped bathe and clothe the residents. then we had to stack the steel beds and disinfect the floor, scrubbing on our hands and knees. Following this, we had to provide whatever personal or medical care we could for the patients; sometimes, it was just shaving them, sometimes just a simple matter of holding their hands as they died.

In any case, this was hard, hot work, and we usually took a break at 10:00 am for some weak tea with the other volunteers, about 10 of us at the time, sometimes less. It was the end of the hot season, the beginning of the monsoon.

One day, they brought a patient and Sr. Bella, a feisty little firecracker, asked me to bathe him, shave him and give him fresh clothing. Because of his poor condition, we had to shave all his body hair, carefully avoiding the gash on his head (he had been hit by a train). In any case, I didn’t finish up for an hour, so I missed my break entirely, and I was frustrated and tired and angry. So I took my break on my own, and when I got back, Sr. Bella was waiting for me, and she tore a strip off me up and down for leaving the shaving equipment on the table. And then she said something that really hurt: You Americans (she lumped us all together) are the same; you come here as if you're something else and leave a mess behind. You are here to serve, and if you can’t get that through your thick head, then just go home.

She actually kicked me out, and I was fine with that. The work was too hard anyway, and I was going to start out on my trek into the Himilaya somewhere.

But when I went to my room that night, I just thought to myself, "there's something more here I need to learn." So I returned the next day, and, luckily, Sr. Bella wasn’t there. There was a different nun there, Sr. Christina. And ironically, the same scenario played out - they brought a fellow in from the street who was dying and had to be cleaned up, and I was tasked with helping. But this time, I was wiser and maybe a bit humbled. I asked Sr. Christina, probably for the first time in my life, really, “what can I do to help.”

She said, “all you have to do is love him.”

Before we continue with our story, I just want to mention that yesterday we had the feast of St. Therese of the Little Flower, a doctor of the church. In her autobiography, she commented how she was looking for some purpose in her life and was reading 1 Corinthians, where Paul wrote that some are prophets, some are apostles, etc. St. Therese didn’t fit into any of these categories, but then she read where it says, “if I have all these gifts, but don't have love, I’m a noisy gong.” “There it is,” she said, "that's my vocation, to love.”

And here's this nun who had just returned from Somalia, saying, “all you have to do is love him.” Then I watched her, and that’s what she was doing! And that’s what I tried to do, although it was difficult because he was in agony. The only English word he knew was “pain.” We used a diluted Javex solution to clean his sores. I think we survived on Dettol.

So then I said to this nun innocently, “I wonder what his name is.” You don’t know what his name is?” She said. “His name is Jesus. Because Jesus said everything you do to the least of my brothers and sisters, you did it to me. And watch Mother Teresa when she is in the adoration chapel; watch her face as she adores Jesus in the blessed sacrament. See her love for Jesus, there, but also here, in the poorest of the poor. Mother Teresa always said, ‘you don’t have to do great things; you only have to do small things with great love.’”

Imagine what could happen here, in our families, in our parish, in our community, if we really started to make love a priority in our lives, if we really saw people for who they were, just children of God trying to make it through each day, or, to rephrase it, trying to see their way through. I am going to try and lead this parish through a period of renewal; as we do this, let’s turn this parish into a school of love, a people of faith who put the needs of others ahead of their own, who have learned somehow that the real presence of Jesus is a lot closer than we might think.

Here is one of my favourite quotes from Pope Francis, it tells us that love is very much our natural state:

"Rivers do not drink their own water. Trees do not eat their own fruit. The sun does not shine on itself, and flowers do not spread their fragrance for themselves. Living for others is a rule of nature. We are all born to help each other. No matter how difficult it is…. Life is good when you are happy. But much better when others are happy because of you."

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