Sister Patricia and Father Mark, the Lord’s branches

“I am the vine and you are the branches. As long as you remain in me and I in you, you bear much fruit; but apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not remain in me is thrown away as they do with branches and they wither. Then they are gathered and thrown into the fire and burned,” says Jesus to his disciples in last Sunday’s gospel, the fifth Sunday of Easter.

This gospel tells us of the role that Jesus plays in our lives – we owe everything to him, including life itself. He is the vine and we are its branches. Whoever separates himself from Jesus, the vine withers and dies. Hence, the consequence of not abiding in Jesus and living separately from him is death, symbolically and literally.

In one of his reflections delivered in 2015, Pope Francis explained to his audience the meaning of the scripture passage. He said: Jesus is the vine, he stressed, “and through Him – like the sap in the tree – the very love of God, the Holy Spirit passes to the branches. Look: we are the branches, and through this parable, Jesus wants us to make us understand the importance of remaining united to him. The branches are not self-sufficient, but depend totally on the vine, in which is found the source of their life. So it is with us Christians. Grafted by Baptism in Christ, we have freely received from Him the gift of new life; and thanks to the Church we are able to remain in vital communion with Christ. We must remain faithful to [our] Baptism, and grow in intimacy with the Lord through prayer, listening and docility to His Word, participation in the Sacraments, especially the Eucharist and Reconciliation.”

He continued: If one is intimately united to Jesus, “he enjoys the gifts of the Holy Spirit, which are – as Saint Paul tells us – are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” ; and consequently does so much good for the neighbor and the society, like a true Christian. In fact, one is recognized as a true Christian by this attitude, as a tree is recognized by its fruit.

The fruits of this profound union with Christ are wonderful: our whole person is transformed by the grace of the Spirit: [our] soul, understanding, will, affections, and even [our] body, because we are united body and soul. We receive a new way of being, the life of Christ becomes our own: we are able to think like Him, to act like Him, to see the world and the things in it with the eyes of Jesus. And so we are able to love our brothers, beginning with the poorest and those who suffer the most, with His heart, and so bear fruits of goodness, of charity, and of peace in the world”.

If we wonder how to attain peace, joy and contentment in this troubled world, this scriptural passage is the answer. We look for answers in so many places but feel frustrated when we do not find what we are looking for. Again, seek God and things fall into the right places. Christ calls on us to nurture this relationship and reciprocate his unbounded love for without him all our efforts are in vain. As the Good Book says, if the Lord does not build the house in vain do the builders toil. Life can be very challenging; it is buffeted by so many storms, but unless we build our foundation in Christ the house that is we will always be destroyed at the slightest trouble.  

To be fruitful, Christ is not only calling us to be with him, but to remain in Him. Much like the winedresser in a vineyard who takes good care of his plantation in order to get good harvest, it is essential that we cultivate a good relationship with the Lord by living a sacramental life, doing charitable works, and say yes to the mission the Lord calls us to do.

As branches of the Lord’s Vine, we are called to love our neighbors and to be workers in the Vineyard of our Messiah. This is how best to describe the life of two Church workers in the news this week: Sister Patricia Fox, who has been ordered to leave the Philippines, and Father Mark Ventura of the Diocese of Cagayan who was killed by assassins riding in tandem in a motorcycle.

In the case of Sister Pat, who has served the people of God in our country for 27 years, the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines (CBCP) has proclaimed: “We believe in the sincerity and dedication of Sr. Patricia to serve our people. We believe further that she is moved to serve our people by the love of Christ.” In my view, Sister Pat is as Filipino as many of us and has proven her love for this country. She has been targeted not because of her work and her so-called political activities but as a scare tactic to intimidate the Church and other missionaries. Like any bully, Sister Pat was chosen and made an example because she is perceived to be weak and vulnerable. But they are wrong.

It is too early to say why Father Mark Ventura was killed. We do not know if it was because of his consistent advocacy for people and nature, for indigenous peoples, against mining and other development aggression. Whatever the reason, the CBCP described Ventura’s assassination as an “evil act’. Father Mark’s superior, Guevara Archbishop Sergio Utleg, rightly called his killing a “brutal and cowardly act.” According to Utleg, “We just lost a young priest, zealous and dedicated, one who smelled like his sheep, to an assassin’s bullet right after he said Mass and was baptizing children.” Like Sister Pat, Father Mark was most likely targeted because he was vulnerable, isolated there in the mountains. Who cares if a priest like him is killed?

The killers of Father Mark and the bullies that are seeking the illegal expulsion of Sister Pat are mistaken. Sister Pat and Father Mark are good shepherds of the people of God in this country. Their weakness is their strength; their witnessing gives us strength. Sister Pat and Father Mark are branches of the Lord, workers in His Vineyard. In them, the words of Jesus are fulfilled:

“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 1You are my friends if you do what I command. I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you. You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.”

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