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20 October

Saint Martha
1957, the first Marist Brothers set out for Ecuador

Marist Calendar - October

Helen or the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman



A meditation incarnate

22/02/2011: Cambodia

The Gospel proposed for today is one of those passages which has always struck me: the healing of the daughter of the Syrophoenician woman (Mk 7:24-31).

The scene is a moving one: Jesus wants to pass unnoticed through a region where the people, of a culture totally different from his own, would probably be unable to understand his  message… But the simple people of the place have heard that there is a prophet powerful in deeds and words living in the next country; He is capable of bringing health, peace and hope, and, what is more, this prophet has come to visit them!

Among these people, there is a woman in despair because of the sufferings of her little girl,  « inhabited by an unclean spirit ». Driven by need and despair, this woman dares to approach the prophet and beg him to do something for her daughter. It’s her last chance, her only hope…

The prophet, using the criteria learned in his own culture, tells her that it is not fair to give to « the other », the one who is « different », what is supposedly the exclusive patrimony of « one’s own people », the « equals ». What reasonable parent would be capable of giving the house dogs the children’s food?

But the woman’s despair prompts her to reply in an astonishingly intelligent way, in taking up the prophet’s own words: « Ah yes, sir! But the house dogs under the table can eat the children’s scraps! »

Faced with this marvellous reply, the prophet discovers meaning and light. This poor desperate woman has shown him a new dimension of his mission: the Bread of the Father, his unconditional Love, has to be distributed to all: the « house dogs » are also now the CHILDREN invited to the table of the Banquet! The Evangeliser by antonomasia has been  evangelised by a simple foreign woman moved by love and driven by need.

When the woman returns home, she finds her hope realised: her beloved little girl is lying on the bed, free from now on of the unclean spirit.

This touching story made me think all day of Helen, one of the girls belonging to the « Little Sprouts » project run by the Maryknoll Sisters, Fathers and lay missionaries, present in Cambodia for almost twenty years (they were among the first groups of missionaries admitted into the country). The project, catering for VIH positive boys and girls whose  parents have died of AIDS, guarantees them all the conditions for being able to lead a worthy life: lodging, food, education, clothes, leisure, the medicines necessary for them to overcome their sickness, and, what is most important, the warmth of a home and the hope of a possible future.

Helen started with this project in 2002, when her mother died in a hospital in Phnom Penh leaving her alone in the world. She was 8 years old at the time, but resembled rather a girl of 3, given her state of malnutrition and lack of proper medication.

I came to know Helen last year when Agustín and I served as volunteers giving English classes to a group of boys and girls with learning difficulties, for whom the Maryknoll missionary team had created a special programme.

Like any other adolescent, Helen seemed unsettled and sometimes even haughty. She is an intelligent girl but easily loses concentration and interest in « academic » things. Some days she would come to class displaying very bad humour; she would sit in a corner and complain endlessly, and refuse absolutely to do anything at all. But little by little, through love and patience, and thanks to the good strategies thought up by the group of woman teachers directing the programme, Helen changed her behavior and showed a different attitude and a real desire to take part and learn.

Today, Helen is studying dressmaking in one of the centres created by Maryknoll in Anlong Kngan, a little village in the suburbs of Phnom Penh. She is living there with a family who take care of her and continue to give her the support she needs to grow up and be happy. Helen is so proud when she goes out in to the street wearing one of the dresses she has made herself!

In Helen I have been able to see at work the power of  Grace, not as something « magical » but as the consequence of the power of the Gospel operating in persons: in Helen herself and in all those who have worked so that she « may have LIFE in abundance ».

The « unclean spirit » which hovered above her and threatened her with death has been driven away by the gift and love of those who have consecrated their lives, in the name of Jesus, to the service of these least ones: it has been driven away thanks to the hard work of personnel who see to the good outcome of the objectives of the projects; it has been driven away by the great generosity of numerous people throughout the world who have contributed resources to support the work of Maryknoll. The Father’s Bread has been put on the table of his beloved daughter Helen!

May the Prophet of Nazareth make of us, Little Brothers of Mary, instruments to render the Kingdom of God present in our times and, in imitation of the Syrophoenician woman, may we also be « shrewd » enough to act so that the « Bread of the Father » may arrive on the  table of many other children and young people, here in Cambodia and everywhere in the world.

Br. Diego L. Zawadzky Z., fms

Phnom Penh, 10 February 2011.

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