March 1st, 2021
“Beautiful…are the feet of him who brings good news.”
I have always found these words of the prophet Isaiah a little humorous. One’s feet seem like the last thing to be blessed in doing missionary work. However, it wasn’t until this weekend that God began to lift the veil that has covered my understanding.
This past Saturday we visited two mission stations along the Aruka River: the village of Hotoquai and Sacred Heart chapel. Hotoquai was our first stop. We reached it after a 40 minute boat ride from Kumaka (the port town below Hosororo Hill). Hotoquai—which means “hill top” in the local Warau dialect—was once a predominantly Anglican mission station. The Anglicans have not been around for some time, making room now for a predominantly Catholic community. That majority was evidenced by the 25 infants and children awaiting baptism.
Upon our arrival one of the seminarians gave an instruction to the parents and godparents while I heard confessions. Only a handful of the adults came to confession, nevertheless the eight children prepared for First Communion were able to make their First Confession. (It is very likely that more adults did not take advantage of the sacrament because they are not used to having a priest available. Without a priest available to hear confessions, the faithful very often fail to appreciate it and fall into the habit of not drawing near to it.)
After the instruction and the confessions were through, I returned to the Church to acquire the Christian names of the children to be baptized. Many of the children only had secular names. We instructed the parents that since their children were being reborn through their baptism into the life of grace, they needed a new name to mark this new life. Several of the parents gave me worried looks because they could not think of a name. I started helping them by giving examples of names from the Bible and from among the saints. In the end, the Gospel writers won the prize of popularity. Hotoquai now has several more Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John’s in the community.
One mother who was once married to a Hindu man came to me asking for help in naming her three sons—Oumesh, Bahman, and Bohman. Their Hindu father had died and now the mother wanted to come back to her Catholic faith. Since there were three of them, I wanted to give them names that were related. I first offered her the choice of naming them after the Archangels. She declined. Then, I said, “Well, why not name them after the three earliest and greatest men to follow Christ?”. “Who?” she responded. “Peter, Paul, and Andrew”. She agreed. Since the boys were past the age of seven, she also wanted them to make their First Communion. I kindly reminded her that such an occasion as making a First Communion necessitated that the children know what they are receiving and believe that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist. Some instruction would be necessary for them to be able to profess that faith. She admitted that they were not prepared and that she would prefer them to receive instruction first. Thus, Peter, Paul and Andrew and their future First Communion is one more testimony to the need of priests in this mission.
Due to the lack of space, the Mass and Baptisms at Hotoquai did not take place in the Church. The community was given permission to use the schoolhouse. An entire half of the school building was taken up by the parents, godparents and children to-be-baptized. In the end, neither was the school big enough, but it did give us a little more space.
As we were heading to the boat after Mass, several of the community members came to the landing to say their goodbyes and make their pleas for our quick return. Their desire for a Catholic life could be felt in their plea. It broke my heart to wave goodbye not knowing if I would be back, and if not me, then if any priest would return to them soon. They were not asking for any extraordinary. They only sought the ordinary Catholic life so many people back home in the States take for granted: Sunday Mass, access to the sacraments, and a man to call “Father” in times of need, both spiritual and material. My only consolation at the moment was knowing that in the end this is Christ’s work. He has known and taken care of this people long before I showed up at their village. Christ will continue to take care of them. These souls belong to His care first.
We arrived at Sacred Heart about 20 minutes after leaving Hotoquai. Where we arrived there was no village, only a chapel on a small plot of swamping land—if you could even call it “land”—along the riverbank. The bush surrounding the property served as the natural fence marking its boundaries. We arrived about an hour early, yet there were already several families waiting for us. After hearing Confessions, praying the Rosary and teaching them about the rite of Baptism everyone expected was present and the Mass began. There was not a square inch of the roughly 12 foot by 20 foot chapel or the front deck that did not have somebody occupying it. The fact that we were baptizing 27 infants and children explains why. By the time the Baptismal rite was over and the Offertory began I will admit that I was tired. It had been raining pretty heavily on and off both at Sacred Heart and Hotoquai. As I mentioned in a previous Chronicle, heavy rain on tin roofs requires more effort in preaching and speaking. The tiredness also came from administering 52 baptisms within two Masses. Teaching, confessing, preaching, and presiding Masses was taking its toll.
And this is where I began to appreciate those words of Isaiah: “Beautiful are the feet that bring the good news.” I began to understand that the “beauty” of the feet comes from the sacrifice they make to bring Christ to others. The feet are one of the humblest parts of our body. We exalt the tongues and lips of great preachers; the minds of great theologians and teachers; the hands of great missionaries who have baptized thousands upon thousands. But the feet that carried these great men to the ends of the earth…who exalts them? No one, but the prophet Isaiah.
The lesson I was reminded of and wish to share is this: whatever sacrifice a missionary makes, it is never in vain. What goes unseen to the eyes of men, never escapes the loving gaze of our Father in Heaven. What He sees in secret, He rewards in secret. We missionaries need no applause and deserve no credit for what we do, for we must remember that we are unworthy servants who by the grace of God alone have been called share His work of redemption as friends.
So, to my missionary brothers in the priesthood, and to my future missionary companions still in formation, I say, “keep your hands on the plow and your eyes forward”. Let us not begin to look behind us to the things we have given up or look down at the difficult terrain we are crossing in life to bring Christ to men and women. Let us fix our eyes on Him and hold firm to the decision to keep following Him.
We toil with Him and not for Him. Our toiling, I admit, is a cross. Only in divorcing ourselves from the cross, however, will we begin to feel the weight of the missionary life. In abiding with Him however, we find the cross to be sweet and the missionary burden to be light. For there are no more “beautiful feet” that bring the good news than the ones that were nailed to the cross.
Long live Christ!
Long live the priesthood!
Long live the missions!
Fr. Christopher Etheridge, IVE