Refugees have been a big part of parish life at Christ the Redeemer. Your generosity to them has brought tears to my eyes more than once.
But the Shaboo and Dayekh families weren’t my first experience of refugees, nor the first time I met people persecuted for their Catholic faith. Almost thirty years ago there was a young refugee who sat at the back of St. Patrick’s parish where I was the assistant pastor.
He didn’t speak English, and made no attempt to communicate with me until some years later, when I learned the story I’m sharing with you today. The young man had been a seminarian, where he had been sent to prison twice for teaching catechism by the Communist victors in the Vietnam War.
Burning with the desire for freedom and the practice of his faith, he escaped from the prison, only to be driven back from the sea by a storm. Recaptured, he was abused and beaten.
But he escaped a second time, successfully, and after being rescued by a passing ship landed in a refugee camp in the Philippines. There he went to work organizing children into a sort of Catholic boy scouts, patiently waiting for a new home.
And then—he was in a car accident outside the camp and suffered serious head injuries from which he took a long time to recover.
Finally he came to Canada, where he lived with his nephew and younger brother, who also wanted to be a priest. Since it seemed financially impossible for both to go to the seminary, the older brother decided to abandon his own hopes and send the younger brother, washing dishes to support them.
On Christmas Eve, the nephew died. For some reason, I find this the saddest part of the story.
But it’s not, ultimately, a sad story. It’s a fulfillment of the prophecy of Isaiah in today’s first reading. Because the young man wasn’t so much a refugee as a missionary—a survivor sent “to the nations,” “to the coastlands far away” that had not heard of the Lord or seen his glory.
As Isaiah promised to the Jewish people, there would be some exiles whom the Lord would call as his priests. And so it happened here, as dozens of Vietnamese exiles became priests to serve the Church in Canada. Among them were the two brothers, for even the older one managed at last to return to the seminary.
That exile, Joseph Phuong Nguyen, becomes the Bishop of Kamloops on Thursday afternoon.
His story makes me squirm when I read today’s Gospel. In some ways, my life as a Christian has been easy. Like the people to whom Jesus speaks these harsh words, I have had good times as a disciple—I have ate and drank with him, and listened to him teach without a whole lot of personal cost.
And without doubt, I’ve been influenced by the theologians of the past fifty years who’ve tried to flip the words of Jesus around—treating the door to hell as the narrow door, and the path to heaven as broad and easy.
Call it what you will—Christianity lite, cafeteria Catholicism, or universal salvation—it’s an attractive sort of faith. We’re all going to be saved, so let’s not worry too much about it
It’s just that Jesus said the exact opposite.
Jesus tells you and me the same thing that kept the new Bishop of Kamloops afloat on a sea of suffering: unless we pick up our cross and follow Christ, we cannot be his disciples.
If you think Jesus is a bit harsh in today’s Gospel, consider his words in St. Matthew’s version: “Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.”
Where do we go with that? I’ll conclude with two answers from our readings today.
First, we don’t lose hope—because we do know that God wills us to be saved. Just as he called back Israel’s exiles, he calls us to himself in countless ways. The Church is our ark, protecting us against the waves and even against the pirates who so often attacked the helpless Vietnamese boat people.
Second, we know that all things work for our good, as St. Paul tells the Romans. Whether our sufferings are dramatic and terrible, like those of Joseph Phuong Nguyen, or just everyday troubles, our loving Father uses them to train us for his kingdom. Prosperity and good fortune are poor guides to heaven, but the patient acceptance of suffering can be a straight path.