The times we are living in now are filled with contradictions, contrasts, and challenges. In today’s second reading, Saint Paul gives a word of caution to the community in Ephesus. It applies to us too: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God.” Today’s readings give us guides for how to do this.
Jeremiah cries out to God in his suffering: he is being mocked by his persecutors. And yet the word of God is a burning flame in his heart, leading him to persist in speaking the word of God even when it is not welcome. In the Gospel, Peter cannot comprehend that following Jesus would entail suffering and gets rebuked for his lack of understanding. The words of Jesus in the Gospel invite us to reflect on what it means to “deny oneself” and how that “loss” of self leads to “saving” one’s life. I offer that “losing one’s self” is concerned with eradicating the negative tales we believe about ourselves or that have been put upon us — e.g., not good enough, not smart enough, etc. — so that we can “save” our lives. This means growing into the likeness of God in whose image we have been created.
Examples of what this looks like in our time come from the work of Maryknoll Sister Mary Vertucci at Emusoi Centre in Arusha, Tanzania and the international work of Maryknoll Sister Abby Avelino on combatting human trafficking. “Emusoi” is a Maasai word meaning “discovery” or “coming to awareness of the full potential in one’s life.”
Emusoi’s slogan, “When you educate a girl, you change a community’s future,” captures its spirit as young girls make the transition from “losing” a traditional way of life where women are not seen as equals to men, have a high illiteracy rate, marry young, and live in poverty, to “finding one’s life” realized through the value of education in a world of possibilities where her God-given talents are recognized and enabled to flourish. Their future is bright as they use their gifts and their voices, not only for themselves, but for the good of their families and of their communities.
In her work based in Rome, Sister Abby Avelino engages in the efforts of Talitha Kum, a network of women religious formed by the International Union of Superiors General (UISG) to combat human trafficking and exploitation worldwide. It was in her work with migrant communities in Japan that Sister Abby met many women and men — from various countries in Asia and Africa — who had been enticed to leave their home countries for work opportunities elsewhere, only to find themselves caught in a spiral of slavery and prostitution. In an effort to find their lives they have lost it to exploiters and traffickers. They now struggle for freedom in a foreign land with nowhere and no one to turn to. The United Nations records that 70% of victims of trafficking are female and over two-thirds are below the age of 30.
To enable these victims to find their lives, the Talitha Kum network advocates for the rights of migrants and refugees and its members in addition to providing counseling, legal consultation, and shelter for victims and survivors of trafficking. In Sister Abby’s words, her work is one of “empowering each other, to give hope, strength and dignity to all, especially the most vulnerable women and children.”
Today’s words of Saint Paul to the Ephesians guide Talitha Kum and all of us to care deeply about this blight on human life when he cautions: “Do not conform yourselves to this age but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that you may discern what is the will of God.” Jesus has stated clearly what is the will of God: “I have come that they may have life and have it to the full.” (John 10:10)
Maryknoll Sister Antoinette (Nonie) Gutzler has served in Tanzania, Taiwan and the United States, including as president of the Maryknoll Sisters Congregation. She holds a doctorate in systematic theology from Fordham University.
Featured image: A file photo shows girls carrying younger siblings at a camp for internally displaced persons in northern Uganda. Human trafficking reached horrendous levels in Uganda with thousands seeking jobs in the Middle East, and forced the Catholic Church to intensify awareness campaigns to end the gruesome plague. (CNS photo/Paul Jeffrey)