Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B

08 Feb 2015

World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 February 2015

Welcome to today’s Solemn Mass here at St Mary’s Cathedral. Today, the Church, as part of her celebration of the Year of Consecrated Life, has proposed a World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking, a cause about which many members of religious orders have been especially active and one close to the heart of the leading religious, Pope Francis. I invite everyone to offer prayer and penance to God in reparation for sins against human dignity that occur in the context of human trafficking and in intercession for those suffering from this scourge.

I am pleased to welcome back the St Mary’s Cathedral Choir returning from their summer break. I welcome also the new probationers for 2015. Finally, I welcome our choristers’ and probationers’ family and friends.

Homily for Mass of Fifth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B
World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking
St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 8 February 2015

Simon Aban Deng grew up a Christian in southern Sudan. One day the Sudanese Army raided his peaceful farming village of Tonga and Deng was forced to take refuge in nearby Malkal. There, Deng came to the aid of a man apparently in need of assistance; for his troubles he was kidnapped, shipped up the Nile and given as a slave to a relative of his assailant in north Sudan. Threatened with having his hands and feet cut off, Deng was forced to engage in agricultural and domestic labour, to sleep in awful conditions and to endure regular beatings. He was also pressed to convert to Islam; he refused, was lucky enough to escape, and now lives in America, working as a lifeguard and speaking out on the injustices suffered by many Sudanese and others. Deng is not alone: it is estimated that in recent years tens of thousands of Sudanese people have been kidnapped, trafficked and sold into slavery as concubines, domestic servants and farm labourers, forced to convert, and treated as mere chattels, with little likelihood of ever regaining their freedom or seeing their families and own country again. And the shocking reality is that this is not some story from the ancient world or mediaeval times: it is the daily reality in 2015.

Nor is this commodifying and trafficking of human beings confined to Sudan. When it is not brutally killing them, the evil ‘I.S.’ organisation is enslaving and selling people of minority religions in Syria and Iraq. The Daily Mail told the story of Hamshee, a 19-year-old pregnant Yazidi captured by I.S., used as a blood bank by her captors, and threatened with starvation unless she converted and married the husband of their choosing. She cried out: ‘What God allows such things?’  In his New Year’s Day Peace Message this year, Pope Francis spoke on behalf of the God who does not condone these things and the millions deprived of freedom around our world today and exploited sexually or for their organs or labour, pressed into service as beggars, drug mules, even combatants.

So the Holy Father has called us today to a World Day of Prayer, Reflection and Action against Human Trafficking. He is inspired by the story of St Josephine Bakhita. Born in Darfur in the Sudan around 1869 she was kidnapped by slave-traders when only nine years’ old and sold and resold in the slave-markets. She suffered repeated beatings, forced conversion, humiliations. Eventually an Italian merchant bought her and took her back with him to Italy where she met a “totally different kind of ‘master'”, Jesus Christ, with whom she fell in love. She was baptised, confirmed and communicated and on gaining her freedom, entered the Canossian Sisters in the hope of helping others find the freedom she had found through Jesus Christ.

St Josephine Bakhita’s lesson to us is that every human being is made in the image of God, made for greatness, so that even if they have ‘Made in Australia’ or ‘Made in Sudan’ marked on their bodies, they have ‘Made for Heaven’ inscribed on their souls. Every human being is made to think and feel and choose, for the good, for communion, for God. The enslavement and trafficking of people is against God’s plan for human freedom and against human dignity, indeed a theft of that freedom and defilement of that dignity. And before we pat ourselves on the back that such things never happen in Australia, we might consider the thousands of human embryos manufactured in IVF programmes and treated as commodities, left abandoned in freezers or disposed of; or the slightly older children aborted in their tens of thousands every year in Australia; or the cases exposed only last year of mothers bought and new-born children trafficked in international surrogacy arrangements by Australians; or the periodic reports of migrant workers being exploited, threatened and otherwise abused in our own city and country. As Pope Francis insists in his message, we all face the temptation, at one time or another, to act in a manner unworthy of our own humanity and to treat others in a way unworthy of their dignity.

The story of Jesus is the story of a God who loved us so ‘madly’ He was willing to surrender His divine comfort and take on the form of a man, a slave, a victim, even a corpse (Phil 2:6-7), to suffer cruelty rather than ever engage in it. The story of St Josephine Bakhita is a similar counter-story to the suffering and abuse that humans too often inflict upon each other. So too the stories of the many religious congregations, often women’s orders like Sr Bakhita’s, who devote themselves to helping the victims of human trafficking in material, psychological and spiritual ways, and through advocacy for a world without such exploitation. They are aware, too, of the deeper kinds of bondage – to vice, addiction, darkness, the devil. Job in our first reading complains of pressed service and sighing slavery, but he is even more aware of how trapped some are in delusions, depression, hopelessness and grief (Job 7:1-4, 6-7). In our Gospel we see Christ entering bravely into the fever and possession to bring balm and freedom (Mk 1:29-39). Though we are still reading the very first chapter of the Gospel of Mark that we will read more or less continuously throughout this liturgical year, yet it is already clear that Jesus’ mission is to be healer and liberator – whatever it would cost Him.

Sometimes we might wonder if it was worth the cost. Instead of treasuring and utilizing their freedom well, people so often take it for granted, waste it, live an indolent, lazy existence. That’s not Christian freedom. Christian freedom honours Christ’s work by getting up immediately, as Simon’s mother-in-law did and getting straight back to work for others. St Paul doesn’t preach the Gospel just because he is free to and wants to: he feels bound to, it is what he is made for, he is not merely free from something but free for something. “So, though I am the slave of no man I make myself the slave of all, so as to win as many as I can.” (1Cor 9:16-23). May God grant us the wisdom to use our freedom well, the determination to extend that freedom to others, and the means to liberate those trapped by any kind of bondage.

Listen to the Audio: http://www.xt3.com/library/view.php?id=18119&categoryId=36&episodeId=2236