Bottom line: Jesus teaches us how to relate to those with different beliefs; as he did with Sister Leonella, so he can help us find common ground for dialogue and sacrificial love.
Today’s Gospel deals with a very contemporary problem: how do we relate to people who have different beliefs? While Jesus doesn't draft a program for inter-religious dialogue, he does lays down an important principle. He tells the disciples to start with the assumption that whoever is not against us is for us. The apostles noticed someone doing a good deed in Jesus' name, but that person was not a member of their immediate community. Jesus told them not to get in the person’s way. If someone uses Jesus' name for a good purpose, they cannot speak ill of him. "Whoever is not against us is for us," he said.
What Jesus is telling us is that we begin by assuming common ground, by giving the other person the benefit of the doubt. This principle has obvious relevance for us today. One of the great tasks our Church faces is how to reach out to Moslem brothers and sisters. Pope Benedict, like Pope John Paul, is focusing a lot of attention on that dialogue. Together with faithful Jews, they share our belief in the one God - the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Moreover, the Moslems recognize Jesus as a prophet and they pay special honor to his Blessed Mother.
Now, we also have many differences with Moslems. Our Holy Father pointed out some of those differences in his controversial address at the University of Regensburg. He mentioned, for example, that we often have a very different way of understanding the goodness and transcendence of God.
I don't want to get into those differences now. What I want to point out is that we do have a tremendous amount in common. We share more common faith with Moslems than, for example, with Hindus or Buddhists. And all of us together have beliefs which are light years from those of a philosophical materialist - the person sometimes referred to as a naturalist or a secular humanist.
In talking with a Moslem - or any person, for that matter - we should always start with our common ground. Whoever is not against us is for us. We saw that approach lived out in a remarkable way by an Italian religious sister. Her name was Sister Leonella Sgorbati. In 1963 she joined the Consolata Sisters. After her initial profession, they sent her to England to get a nursing degree. She then went to Africa where she served the poor for over three decades. Part of her work involved training nursing students. Her last assignment was to set up a nursing school at the children’s hospital in Mogadishu, Somalia. Besides serving only fellow Christians, she was in constant contact with the large Moslem population. She loved the Moslem people, but she knew the dangers. Some saw her work not as act of love, but as a threat. Her community prudently provided Sister Leonella with a bodyguard. Still, for a pastoral worker, there is really no protection against an embittered individuals, ready to use violence.
When Sister Leonella finished evening shift, on September 16, two assailants awaited her. It was close to midnight and they hid behind an empty street vendor stand. They first bullet hit Sr. Leonella in the thigh. When her bodyguard fired back, they shot and killed him. Then they shot Sr. Leonella two more times in the back. She was taken to the hospital, but they could not stop the external and internal bleeding. As she died, she kept repeating in Italian: "pardono, pardono." I forgive. I forgive.
Sr. Leonella’s life - and her death - represent the love of Christ in action. He wants us to reach out to others, even those who see things differently than we do. Jesus can help us find common ground, to give the other person the benefit of the doubt. Whoever is not against us is for us. At the same time, we are not so naive as to think that everyone, always will be on our side. Sister Leonella knew that her work had aroused the envy of some bitter people. She used to joke that somewhere in Somalia there was a bullet with her name engraved on it. So there was. Sister Leonella stayed in Somalia because she knew that Jesus died for her - and that he called her to embrace others - especially suffering children and the young students who dreamed about a better world. As Sister Leonella lay dying, she imitated Jesus in the most radical way - by praying for the forgiveness of her assailants. Pardono, pardono. I forgive, I forgive. May she rest in peace - and may she intercede for those who seek paths of dialogue and sacrificial love.
From Archives (Homilies for 26th Sunday, Year B):
Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C
Bulletin (Tice Hall Blessing; CD's by Fr. Fr. Bill Casey, C.P.M., Kimberly Hahn & Fr. Benedict Groeschel; Owners Claim Puppy, Presentation on Post-Abortion Healing)
Blessing of Tice Hall
(September 21, 2006; with videos of talks by Sister Joyce Cox and Principal Glen Lutz)
Dennis Prager: critics of pope want it both ways
Dawn Eden on 15-year-old taken to an abortion clinic