No31 June 1998.5
Quebec has experienced a number of catastrophes during recent months. What with frost and floods, and explosions like that in the Accueil Bonneau, we seem to have been dogged by misfortune. We may be grateful that such disasters are uncommon in our country. Other countries suffer much more, especially those in the Third World, where hurricanes, bush fires and drought continually afflict people already trying to cope with dire poverty. But suffering people remain suffering people, wherever they live, and they deserve our help.
How can we explain our recent misfortunes? Is God angry with us? Have we offended him by some unacknowledged fault? Is he taking revenge on us for our indifference?
Surely not! And in fact few Quebec Christians could believe such things. God is our father, and it is inconceivable that he should wish to take revenge on his own creatures. That is neither his plan nor his style.
God is a Father full of mercy and compassion, willing to go to all lengths to meet those in need. He sends his messengers to help the needy, to heal their wounds, to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit prisoners, to give a glass of water to the thirsty. And, says the Gospel, What you do to the least of these little ones, you do to me. This is how God reveals himself. He acts through those who volunteer for his service.
Very often these volunteers act in simple and hidden ways. Who could claim to know all those men and women who helped at the Accueil Bonneau? Very few. During the last days, the names of some of God's friends have been added to our list of grateful memories: Sister Nicole Fournier, the Director of the Acceuil Bonneau; Sister Claire Ménard, deceased, who lived for seven years in Africa; Madame Céline Corriveau, deceased, mother of two children; and Madame Marie-Liliane Forbes, deceased, mother of three children. Our humble admiration grows with each new discovery, with each new word we hear uttered.
There was no element of publicity-seeking in those who gave all this selfless service. We might compare them to the statues placed so high on ancient cathedrals that you can hardly see them. Their sculptors certainly never imagined that one day zoom-lenses would enable us to see them as if they were as near as the others. They could have said to themselves: "Let us put the finest statues low down where everyone can see and admire them. It does not matter what the others are like since no one will ever see them." Yet when we now look at these lofty statues, we see with admiration that no pains were spared to make them as beautiful as possible.
We do not always have the same wisdom as those who built the cathedrals. Too often we care only for appearances, for what is visible; we tend to neglect what cannot be seen. What does it matter, we may think, what thoughts are rolling round my head, what feelings gnawing at my heart, provided I cover them up? So we fail to clean what is soiled and to straighten what is twisted.
It is certain that countless unknown acts of disinterested goodness are carried out every day in our society. The missionaries of love only appear in exceptional circumstances, as in the catastrophe of the Accueil Bonneau. Then they come forth into the light and are astonished to discover that they have become public figures. They do not know how to behave when people treat them as heroes. Generous service has been for them the stuff of daily life. They tell us moreover that in the service of people in need they receive more than they give. These are not mere words. Without always being able to say how, they know that in giving they grow in stature as human beings. What they are in fact doing is carrying out their vocation as creatures made in the image and likeness of God. Cardinal Turcotte made the point when he spoke on television: "Every human being has a right to our respect, and the Accueil Bonneau has always seen it as its mission to restore dignity to the poor. It offers not just bread but love."
There is among the people of Quebec a natural tradition of compassion and charity. We live in a country with a high standard of living. But this must not be allowed to dry up our hearts. Too often we only mean by standard of living, standard of possessions: refrigerator, car, television. But there is an interior standard of living as well, a standard of the heart. What we have within is more important than our outward possessions. We may rejoice that many people in Quebec recognize this truth. They have the interior wealth of ideas and generosity, of courage and strength. Their interior cisterns are full as well.
Our qualities of heart make it natural for us to help the poor people present in our society. We may think of all the ordinary people who hastened to the ruins in the rue de la Commune just after the explosion. This was at the risk of their lives for there was still gas in the air and, according to the engineers, there could easily have been a second explosion. But these persons found it natural to go the aid of those in need. This was their satisfaction. "The one who loses his life shall save it." People are fully human when they have those qualities of heart which very often they have inherited from their parents.
It was these same generous qualities which in previous generations led young men and women into the religious life. We may think of the flowering of missionary vocations in Quebec in the 1950's and 1960's. Young people brought up in a generous society have a natural urge to give their life to others and to share their own beliefs and values. It is an instinct for us to want to give back what we have received. It seems to be elementary justice.
It is as natural for us to help those in need as it is for a mother to help her children. Disinterestedness is the mark of a superior humanity and we rejoice to see it. Christian faith endorses our natural generosity. Yet you hear people who have risked their lives to help others say that they are believers but not practising. Religious practice does not mean Sunday Mass but a life lived in charity, the struggle for justice, active compassion for the needy. What else have we got to celebrate when we go to church on Sunday?
Is the lack of religious vocations in recent years a sign of a falling off in natural qualities? Where now is our famous solidarity with the poor?
Goodness can find a variety of expressions. The moral quality of a society cannot be measured by the religious vocations it produces. Moreover we all have a religious vocation, whatever our state in life and wherever we work. More and more people are becoming aware of their own personal vocation. No doubt the classical type of religious vocation will always be needed, but the Spirit blows where He wills and can produce good fruit from generous hearts in all kinds of ways. When the road is blocked, said Cardinal Turcotte, you have to look for a path. Nothing can prevent good seed, planted in good soil, from bringing forth good fruit. One day the hundredfold will be emerge. What happened in those days in the Accueil Bonneau was the product of good hearts. Good things, like bad, do not come from outside a man but from within, from his heart.
We all have our own way of being missionaries. Whether it is in Africa, Asia or Quebec, the poor we shall always have with us. Our generosity, like poverty, should recognize no frontiers. Let us then for the moment show our missionary solidarity here in Quebec. It is needed.
Michel Fortin, M.Afr.