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In face of suffering humanity

· Archbishop Prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples closed the celebrations in San Fele for the 150th anniversary of the death of Justin De Jacobi, Gospel witness in Ethiopia ·

On July 31st in San Fele, Potenza – birthplace of Justin De Jacobis, Lazzarist missionary and evangelizer of Ethiopia – the Archbishop Prefect for the Congregation for Evangelization of Peoples celebrated the concluding mass of the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the death of the Bishop Saint (July 31, 1860 in Zula, Eritrea). We publish below the text of his homily.

Jesus began a series of healings which seem to have no end. All of suffering humanity line up before him. Ill people are put back on their feet. An incredible and uninterrupted action, even if Jesus knows that the miracles he has come to perform must penetrate more deeply. The heart of man will be the center of his mission. He descended to earth, in fact, to reveal the merciful face of the Father who, “wants all men to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 2:4).

I accepted with joy the invitation to preside at the Eucharist which concludes the cycle of celebrations for the 150th anniversary of the birth in Heaven of St. Justin De Jacobis, evangelizer of Ethiopia, as well as apostle to our people. This land was made fertile by his heroic testimony of life. It is right, therefore, to commemorate the exemplary figure of a missionary who, as Servant of God Pope Paul VI, said on October 26, 1975, on the occasion of his canonization, “has only one fault, that of being little known.”

He was born in San Fele on October 9, 1800 and moved with his family to Naples and then to Puglia, where he studied theology. Ordained a priest in the cathedral of Brindisi, as a Lazzarist religious, he carried out twelve years of ministry in that region, before returning to Naples to assist those ill with cholera. A request from Propaganda Fide to his religious order, caused Fr. Justin to leave for north Ethiopia at 38 years of age.

He came to love the Abyssianian people, their culture and their traditions. He dedicated himself to studying ghe’ez , the liturgical language necessary to understand the sacred texts of the ancient theological tradition of Ethiopia. Ten years after his arrival in Ethiopia, he became Apostolic Vicar of Abyssinia, and ordained bishop by Cardinal Guglielmo Massaia.

He founded a seminary for priests as well as many missionary stations.

He preferred evangelizing in the most depressed rural areas of the country, instead of the cities, to be near those who were most poor and humble.

He chose an itinerant missionary life, of low-profile, to which he remained faithful until his death. He moved through the villages by foot, with the aid of a walking stick and set up his tent in the small grottos where he found shelter, sleeping amongst the shepherds and their flock. He experienced all manner of setbacks and challenges, including five years of exile, following the persecution of Negus, Theodore II.

A humble and generous man, he gave himself totally to the apostolate and the formation of local clergy. He bore hunger and thirst, and even jail. He died in Zula, Eritrea, on July 31, 1860 where his remains are still conserved and venerated.

The singular figure of St. Justin illuminates a Sunday which the liturgy dedicates to the theme of bread, prelude to the Eucharist, “the living bread that came down from heaven.” (John 6:51).

The evangelist Matthew intimates how extraordinary was the intuition of the people, who left their daily occupations and ran after that young Messiah from Nazareth. Convinced by his words, they followed him everywhere. They even went to the lake, a place that was supposed to be “secret.” Jesus needed a bit of rest, but love won out. He shared the concerns and worries of the crowd, listened to their sufferings and showed them the care of a pastor.

And here he is, still ready to lighten the heavy burden of suffering humanity. The weaknesses of others, used by some to discriminate or take advantage of, are opportunities of grace for him.

It is rare that we search for Jesus for Jesus’ sake, that is, for that mission which the Father entrusted to him. Sometimes we go to him for other reasons: encouragement, a favor, a healing. People are so drunk with marvel for the wonders he performs that they don’t realize that it is getting late. The darkness takes everyone unawares and presents the problem of what to eat, especially because the place is isolated. The apostles ask Jesus to dismiss the crowd, but Jesus says, “You give them something to eat.” (v. 16).

Jesus has a striking sign in mind, but he does not want to do it on his own. He asks for collaboration and five barley loaves and two fish are given to him. A little is enough to become satiated, if it is lived as a gift; it is transformed into misery, however, if it is kept for one’s own satisfaction. God needs us to multiply his loving presence.

The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the anticipation of the Eucharist, true food, not metaphoric: “My flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.” (John 6:55) (cfr. Ecclesia de Eucharistia , 16). With only five loaves of bread and two fish, more than 5,000 men are fed, not counting women and children, so a crowd of 7-8,000 people. They were not all worthy. Amongst the crowd, there were good people and sinners, disciples and those who were curious, friends and those in opposition. Jesus did not discriminate. For him, in a time of hunger, all were equal. With Jesus, there was no debt to be paid, nor merit to boast about. A free meal of plenty of fish and bread. Hunger was reason enough for him to perform a miracle.

Destitution continues to knock at the doors of history. The Holy Father, Benedict XVI, has repeated it often in these last few weeks, recalling that almost 12 million Africans risk dying from the famine and drought that has hit the Horn of Africa. Right in St. Justin de Jacobis’ beloved land, to which he was forever tied. An immense population there waits for signs of solidarity or a tragic end. To allow everyone to sit at the table of the Planet, the children of an often wasteful world must share their resources with those who live in humiliation and malnutrition.

“You give them something to eat,” is a precise order from Jesus.  And where the well-being of some is built on the impoverishment of others, there is also a duty of restitution. But the multiplication of loaves and fishes is projected onto another multiplication of food which comes from on High, in the Eucharist, food for eternal life. Each time that we celebrate the Eucharist, the miracle of God who gives everything to everyone occurs. Jesus is the full and enduring response to the hunger for the absolute which lives in the heart of every man. Today, like yesterday, multitudes of creatures search for Jesus, they hunger for him who is compassionate, but he asks for collaboration. He needs disciples who are ready to go and divide the bread of eternal life.

“They all ate and were satisfied, and they picked up the fragments left over – twelve wicker baskets full.” (v. 20) The most ancient depiction of the Eucharist show baskets with five loaves of bread and on the side, two fish. Even what we are doing right now is a multiplication of bread: the bread of the Word and the bread of the Eucharist. We who have come to celebrate the holy mysteries are also given the duty to, “pick up the fragments left over,” to bring the Word also to those who have not participated at the banquet. Dear friends, each of us is given the task to repeat and witnesses the message we have received as a gift.

St. Justin de Jacobis understood very well these thoughts and using simple means, he knew how to place the work of God among his people. 150 years after his death, his memory is alive in Ethiopia and Eritrea.

After St. Frumentius, called the “revealer of the Light,” Eritrean and Ethiopian Catholics consider St. Justin their new father in faith because through his unceasing activity, he made the Catholic Church alive again in their land. Let us entrust to God, in this season of trial, the difficulties of the missionary Church, particularly in Africa and the inevitable challenges of this diocesan Church. May the Lord Jesus give us apostolic zeal, the far-sightedness of faith and charity in action.

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