Maryknoll Sister Miriam Frances Perlewitz in Bangladesh reflects on the need for a clean heart and steadfast spirit when facing life's challenges.
As today’s scripture so aptly reminds us: “Unless the grain of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains alone” (Jn. 12:27). How this self-sacrifice will be accomplished in the present age depends on the determination of each loving heart.
Life in this world is challenged by the forces of nature and the nature of humankind. Unless we live together in harmony and peace, tragic events will lead to the disintegration of God’s greatest gift and responsibility shared with us: “To live on this earth and to care for it” (Gen 2:15) – not least, surely to care for our neighbor.
Because our world is becoming smaller with gobal positioning systems and other technical tools that can give us geographical locations previously unfamiliar to many, most are aware that events in one country have a bearing for good or ill on all others. However, the world was stunned when thousands upon thousands of Rohingya people living for generations in Myanmar overran the border of Bangladesh, the neighboring state to the east of Bangladesh. In that moment of crisis, with no prior warning or preparation, “Bangladesh demonstrated the highest humanitarian goodwill by sheltering over a million Rohingyas who fled the atrocity in the Rakhine State of Myanmar,” asserted the Prime Minister of Bangladesh in her statement to the International Day of Commemoration of the Victims of the Crime of Genocide, quoted in The Independent, pg. 1, Dec. 9, 2017. Her statement succinctly illustrates her pride in the response of the Bengalis for doing good in this moment of history.
It is inconceivable for us to comprehend the forces that prompted the displacement of the Rohingyas but indisputably, we are summoned to care for ‘our neighbor.’ The first reading from Jeremiah, the Prophet, awakens in us the covenant endemic to the human heart, planted there so long ago: “I will place my law within them and I will write it on their hearts. I will be their God and they shall be my people . . . And all shall know me . . . from the least to the greatest.” (Jer. 31:31-34). The responsibility is manifestly universal. The ancient Law of Love written in our hearts impels us ‘To love our neighbor as ourselves.’
Bengalis continue to pour out themselves to care for this huge influx of refugees but they are understandably worried about the future. Bangladesh, a country that is already over-populated and congested, is financially incapable of accommodating the refugees and meeting their basic necessities for an unknown period of time. The most basic problem concerns the real possibility of conflict between the exceeding number of Rohingyas and the minorities whose space has been invaded. Other considerations include the identity of Rohingya children being born in Bangladesh, the financial strain of sustaining the load of this underdeveloped and unskilled people, the burden on the health sector in addition to the problem of drug addiction and drug smuggling, the pressure on the environment exacerbating all aspects of pollution, to name only the most glaring difficulties envisioned. [adapted from The Independent, Nov. 29, 2017, pg. 7].
During Pope Francis’s recent historic visit to Bangladesh, he met with a group of Rohingyas and wept as he listened to their traumatic stories. When he asked their forgiveness, he reflected perhaps a sense of the world’s collective failure in yet another instance of unbridled ethnic cleansing (adapted from The Daily Star, Dec. 8, 2017, pg. 15). In doing so, he evoked Psalm 118 which moves us in today’s Liturgy to plead for a clean heart and the renewal of a steadfast spirit. Actions and determinations expressed here require taking our Christian commitment seriously. It means plodding along when the spirit is overwhelmed and the flesh is weak. We need to be cleansed of our sins of apathy, indifference, fatigue and giving up in the fractious situations with which we are confronted. Here, in the current situation of Bangladesh or in any situation of this kind, there can be no settling for anything less than “a grain of wheat which falls to earth and dies.”
Photo: Maryknoll Sr. Miriam Perlewitz, front right, at a school in Bangladesh. (Courtesy of Maryknoll Sisters)