Pentecost this year has been both bitter and sweet. It is always sweet. The promise of the Holy Spirit is the fuel of our love and our experience of the presence of Christ. We continually pray, “Come Holy Spirit, kindle in us the fire of your love.”
The bitterness flows from the news that on 5 June 50 Christians in Nigeria were shot and killed at St Francis Catholic Church in Owo, in Ondo State that, as they celebrated the Pentecost Mass.
These deaths followed that of a teenage Catholic girl, Deborah Samuel. She was murdered by a mob of her schoolmates in Sokoto, also northern Nigeria, in May, with her body publicly burned, for arguing her school WhatsApp group should be restricted to academic matters and exclude Islamic proselytism. What do these murders signify? Do we use politics or metaphysics to weigh them?
I learnt first-hand about good and evil in the Catholic Church in Nigeria from a bishop, Oliver Doeme, of the Diocese of Maiduguri, in north-eastern Nigeria. I had seen a YouTube clip of him talking about an experience of the risen Christ he had had. It took place one evening when he was in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. He was astonished to see Jesus in front of him, appearing with a sword in his hand. “Not used to seeing our Lord with a sword in hand, I said, ‘Lord, what is this?’”
The Lord said nothing to him, hut held out the sword, which Bishop Oliver reached out to receive. Yet as he took it, the sword turned into a rosary. Then the Lord spoke. “Boko Haram is gone.” He said it three times. Bishop Oliver explains, “I didn’t need any prophet to give me explanation. It was clear. That with the rosary, we would be able to expel Boko Haram from our diocese. That with the intervention of his own Mother, whom I so cherish and am so close to, we will dislodge Boko Haram from this diocese.” It was in his diocese that the infamous kidnapping of hundreds of school children had taken place.
This story became much more personal for me than I expected. Inspired by the video, I had tried to set up some Rosary prayer groups in the parish and place where I was at the time. Shortly afterwards, I took part in a large ecumenical pilgrimage gathering in Rome.
One evening, we were to be addressed by an African bishop and since the largest group of pilgrims who were not anglophones were French, I was asked to stand next to this speaker on the stage and simultaneously translate what he said into French.
I had no idea who he was or what he was going to say. He began by talking about the night that he was in adoration before the Blessed Sacrament, and it immediately clicked. This was my YouTube Nigerian bishop.
As he recounted how in a mysterious way the unfamiliar sword turned into a rosary as he reached forward to grasp it, he slipped his hand into his pocket to pull out the rosary he was carrying, and since I knew what was coming, I too slipped my hand into my pocket and pulled out my rosary, so that the translation was both in words and action. It looked like we had prepared the little piece of drama on the stage, but if course we had never met. It was the Holy Spirit who had made the necessary preparations.
We are so used to political and intellectual analyses being offered for geopolitical tensions that it is only too easy to relegate spiritual insight and metaphysical confidence to a compartmentalised pious reflex.
It is sometimes forgotten that when our Lady gave the rosary to St Dominic, she offered it specifically as a weapon – a weapon against the forces of darkness we are struggling with. But the constant secularism and the threat of intellectual derision have made this perception more difficult to maintain.
History helps us. Pope Pius V was one of the popes who was most devoted to the Rosary and found himself presiding over the Church at a moment when its very existence in Europe hung in the balance. As well as soldiers, sailors and ships at the Battle of Lepanto (1571), when the whole of western civilisation was at risk from Islamic takeover, it was the dedicated praying of the Rosary that was believed to have changed a situation in which the odds were heavily stacked against the Holy League into a surprising victory.
Pope Leo XIII, who had a reputation for being spiritually astute, and who experienced a profound vision of the intensity of the battle that was to envelop the Church in the 20th century, wrote 11 encyclicals on the Rosary.
It is too easy to take the deaths of fellow Christians lightly, and we should be careful about using martyrdoms as material for our own preoccupations. But we cannot forget that red – the colour of Pentecost – stands for both fire and blood. The last century saw greater numbers of Christian martyrdoms than any other. From within and without, the Church is in perpetual struggle with evil. Bishop Oliver’s vision was a gift not only to him, but the whole Church. When the news turns this bad, we should be reaching for our rosaries.
The Lord held out the sword, which Bishop Oliver reached out to receive. Yet as he took it, the sword turned into a rosary. Then the Lord spoke. “Boko Haram is gone.” He said it three times.
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