Maryknoll Lay Missioner John O'Donoghue in Bolivia reflects on the enduring need for people to hear Jesus' commandment to love one another.
For the past two and a half years I have worked here in Bolivia with the Missionaries of Charity, the religious order founded by Mother Teresa (now Saint Teresa of Calcutta) in India. I work daily with the Sisters in one of their homes for men afflicted with HIV/AIDS and other disabilities.
When I first started working with the Sisters, I asked them what exactly I could do to be of assistance. One of the Sisters answered, “Just try to keep their spirits up, that will be of great help.” After a few months on the job I soon discovered the wisdom in the Sister’s words, for several patients were prone to depression as a result of their condition, but also from the terrible stigma associated with HIV/AIDS, and being abandoned by family and friends. I think for many patients, being abandoned is worse than the disease itself.
In today’s gospel, Jesus speaks of love. “I give you a new commandment: love one another.” What a terrible feeling it must be to feel unloved and abandoned at a time when you are sick and in great need of love and care. “As I have loved you, so you also should love one another. That is how all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” I think of these words all the time.
Many years ago, I had the great privilege of working with Mother Teresa in Calcutta, India. I remember her saying the poor were hungry not just for piece of bread, but for love. Similarly, the homeless are not homeless because they lack a house to live in; their homelessness comes from being abandoned by all, being unwanted, unloved, uncared for, neglected. They have forgotten the meaning of human love, human joy, the human touch. I have never forgotten these words and carry them with me to work every day.
His Holiness, Pope Francis, gave a wonderful example of the importance of human love and human touch when he visited Panama for World Youth Day in January. On the last day of his visit, he visited a center that offers care and support for people suffering from HIV/AIDS. It meant so much to many when he urged people not to discriminate against their neighbors. “Our neighbor is first of all a person, someone with a real, particular face, not something to avoid or ignore, whatever his or her situation may be.” By saying these words and touching the hands of the suffering, Pope Francis showed his humanity.
Although of great help in suppressing the effects of the HIV virus, antiretroviral drugs can have terrible side effects that cause patients to suffer. I have seen patients stop eating due to stomach pain and, in some instances, not take their medication. If they don’t take their medicine, the virus will progress. In the first reading today, Paul and Barnabas on returning from one of their mission journeys strengthened the spirits of the disciples and encouraged them to persevere in the faith, saying, “It is necessary for us to undergo many hardships to enter the kingdom of God.” These words ring true to me today. We missionaries are in the business of bringing hope and encouragement, and to strengthen the spirits of others, especially those who suffer greatly, such as HIV/AIDS patients who feel so alone.
Today’s second reading is a beautiful passage from Revelation that offers hope and encouragement for freedom from suffering. It is a vision of a more perfect world. “He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, for the old order has passed away.” I have often said to patients, “You are never alone. God is always with you and knows your suffering.” How encouraging are the words “Behold, I make all things new.”
Jesus’ commandment to love one another is more relevant today than ever. In our world today there is so much xenophobia, racism, discrimination, bigotry and hatred. The message of Jesus has always been one of love and inclusivity and yet many more are in need of hearing his message.