3 February, Wednesday — A Shepherd Smells of His Sheep

Feb 3 – Memorial for St. Blaise, bishop and martyr; Memorial for St. Ansgar, bishop

St. Blaise (d. 316) was a physician and Bishop of Sebaste, Armenia. He lived in a cave on Mount Argeus. He was a healer of men and animals. According to legend, sick animals would come to him on their own for help, but would never disturb him in prayer.

Agricola, governor of Cappadocia, came to Sebaste to persecute Christians. His huntsmen went into the forests of Argeus to find wild animals for the arena games, and found many waiting outside Blaise’s cave. Discovered in prayer, Blaise was arrested, and Agricola tried to get him to recant his faith. While in prison, Blaise ministered to and healed his fellow prisoners, including saving a child who was choking on a fish bone; this led to the blessing of throats on Blaise’s feast day.

Thrown into a lake to drown, Blaise stood on the surface and invited his persecutors to walk out and prove the power of their gods; they drowned. When he returned to land, he was martyred by being beaten, his flesh torn out with wool combs (which led to his association with, and patronage of those involved in the wool trade), and then beheaded.

Blaise has been extremely popular for centuries in both the Eastern and Western Churches. In 1222, the Council of Oxford prohibited servile labour in England on his feast. He is one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

St. Ansgar (801-865) was born to the French nobility. He was a Benedictine monk at Old Corbie Abbey in Picardy, and New Corbie in Westphalia. He studied under St. Adelard and St. Paschasius Radbert. He accompanied the converted King Harold to Denmark when the exiled king returned home.

He was a missionary to Denmark and Sweden. He founded the first Christian church in Sweden in c.832. He was abbot of New Corbie in c.834. He was ordained Archbishop of Hamburg by Pope Gregory IV. He was a papal legate to the Scandanavian countries. He established the first Christian school in Denmark, but was run out by pagans, and the school was burned to the ground. He campaigned against slavery.

He was Archbishop of Bremen. He converted Erik, King of Jutland. He was a great preacher, a miracle worker, and greatly devoted to the poor and sick. Sadly, after his death most of his gains for the Church were lost to resurgent paganism.

  • Patron Saint Index

Heb 12:4-7,11-15
Mk 6:1-6 

The sheep that belong to me listen to my voice, says the Lord; I know them and they follow me.

The Khlong Toei slums lies in the midst of the Sukhumvit district — the vibrant, glitzy shopping entertainment and tourist hub of Bangkok. However, a railway track acts as a dividing line, separating the haves from the have-nots. In the squatter slums of Khlong Toei live Bangkok’s poorest and most vulnerable. It is a haven of drugs, violence, sexual abuse, and prostitution. In Khlong Toei is found Father Joe Maier, an American Redemptorist priest and the Mercy Centre he co-founded with a Sister. For over 45 years, Father Joe has shepherded this flock. It was a flock not of sheep but of pigs. Regardless, this is his flock. And he was their shepherd.

Located next to the Chao Phraya river, Khlong Toei was part of the ‘slaughterhouse slums’. The poor eked out a living in this abattoir. And Father Joe, for the initial two years, had to come down from the ‘mountain’ to literally live and work in the pig-sties. He looked and smelled like the pigs. Because, his flock literally lived among the pigs in their sties. Whole families lived like this. Even the children. That’s what it took for Father Joe to get to know, to love and to serve, his flock. This was how long it took for him to know his flock – to really know his flock. And for his flock to know and accept him.

Mercy Centre began as a single one-baht-a-day preschool, and has since expanded into a network of over 30 schools all over Bangkok, which have graduated an estimated 35,000 children who would otherwise have probably ended up in prison, drug rehab centers, brothels, sweat-shops or simply killed in street violence. Some of you may have heard of Father Joe. Most of you, I suspect, would probably not. I didn’t. Not until I chanced upon a video of him.

Let’s stop kidding ourselves. Armchair shepherds are no shepherds. ‘Shepherds’ that are unwilling and unable to get into the ‘pig-sty’ (sheep-pen) of human want, suffering, loneliness, desperation, despair, injustice and abuse with their flock, will never make good shepherds. They can never know their flock and the flock can never know them. I am not talking about just being volunteers or full-time social workers. Or about merely giving of some time and money to help the poor. These are noble and much needed. But loving and serving our brothers and sisters, wherever they are and in whatever circumstances we might encounter them in their need, demands much more of us. We need to get into the ‘pen’ with them. This is the lesson the likes of Father Joe, St Vincent de Paul, Saint Teresa of Calcutta and many others, known and unknown, have shown us. That we can never truly be the hand, face and heart of God by being armchair shepherds.

In the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd, there used to hang a painting of the Prodigal Father. In it showed the Father tenderly hugging his prodigal son who has returned to him. I noticed that the Father’s coat had a lot of brown stains. The filth, gunk and crap which covered the son, had rubbed off onto the Father. But the Father was oblivious to it all and was hell-bent only on hugging his son — tightly, lovingly, longingly. He was not about to let go of his child who had consumed him over countless sleepless nights of worry and sorrow and was finally back in his embrace. In exchange for the ugliness, stench and mess, the Father returned only forgiveness, restoration, hope, life and love to His child. God came down to us in the misery of our pig-sties of human suffering and sinfulness. Our salvation did not come cheap. It cost our Father His only child. But only in doing so did the Father show and say to us “I know you my child, and now my child, I hope you will truly know me and how much I love you”.

(Today’s OXYGEN by Justus Teo)

Prayer: Father, help us. In the midst of life, we struggle to hear Your voice, to see You walking amongst our suffering brothers and sisters. Often using what we can spare – money, time, material things to ‘make up’ for our inability and unwillingness to get into the pig-sties to bring Your love and hope to those most in need, to experience Your love for them.

Thanksgiving: Father, thank you for Father Joe and for the countless other living saints who daily walk tenderly among the poor, the lonely, the suffering and the despairing. Thank you for the gift of true and good Shepherds in this world.

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