A secret only to himself



“I tell you that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven her, or she would not have shown such great love.”

The best – the very best - church leader I have ever known is not a priest, or a nun, or indeed any other kind of “professional” religious. He is an Amerindian lay church leader and he works in a Church community in a little village in the Amazon, many thousands of miles away from here. Perhaps I should explain: in the Rupununi, there are about 30,000 Catholics spread out over about 30,000 square miles of dry Savannah and rain forest. They are served by three priests who supply 56 village churches. That means each church will see a priest about once every three months. So, the spiritual life of the village depends almost entirely on the local lay team of church leaders. Nearly all of them are good; some of them are great; but James (I won’t embarrass him by his real name) is head and shoulders the best. He is a truly holy man, exemplary in his personal life. When you are in his presence, you know by his every word and action that you are in the presence of the Holy Spirit. He works hard as the village school-master to provide for his family; but he works even harder to build the Church in his village. Everyone who comes to him will find him sympathetic and doing his best to be helpful. Whenever there is work to be done, he is always the first one there. He carries all the burdens that are laid upon him without complaint and also without getting a swollen head. And, asking around, I eventually found out his true story. Nobody wanted to tell me, but eventually, he heard I had been asking about him, so he told me himself.

He had originally been a church leader in another village and he had done a fairly decent job. And he had taken great pride in it because it made him an important and respected man in the village. But then he started to drink more and to get drunk more. And he started to visit a certain single woman in the village rather more often than seemed to be strictly necessary for his professional duties. And he began to neglect his wife and two small children.

Gradually, people began to talk. And then to get a little angry. And some people even left the Church. And eventually the Church team got together and decided that he could no longer be the church leader - in fact he couldn’t even be on the Church team. And so he was expelled. He was deeply shamed. He still came to mass but not to communion. And he went on getting drunk and visiting his “sweet woman”. Eventually the shame was too much and he left the village and went away to another village, several hundred miles away in a different province, with a different tribe and a different language to start a new life.

In his new village, nobody knew his past. He got a new job as a teacher. He was successful. He was well liked. And the new village was growing. One of the things they wanted to have was their own church and their own church team. And who better to head up that church team than the universally liked and respected schoolteacher? So, after he had been in his new village for about five years, he was invited to be the church leader because he seemed the ideal man to found a new Christian community. But he, remembering the shame, said “no”. But he couldn’t tell them why he didn’t want it. He was very afraid the people in his new village would get to find out what had happened in his previous village. It was the thought that had dominated his every waking hour for those five years. But the people kept coming to ask him. So, eventually he said to them that something had happened - he didn’t want to say exactly what - when he had been a church leader before that made him think that he should not be in that same position again.

But they said to him “Oh no, we know all about that! All the people from your old village told us about you when you first came! We know that is why you had to come here. But we want to give you another chance. We know that you were a good church leader before and so if you have faith, you can be a good church leader again.”

James was overwhelmed. He had spent the previous five years trying to preserve a guilty secret that had in fact been a secret only to himself. And he been so afraid that the people in his new village, if they knew the truth, would reject him. And he now found that they had always known it, but they still accepted him and wanted him to try again. So, now, when he went back to work as the church leader he did not do it just as a job that he had to do. He did it with love because he knew how much he had been forgiven.

“I tell you that his sins, his many sins, must have been forgiven him, or he would not have shown such great love.”

Let us profess our Faith in God who forgives sinners – even, or perhaps especially, sinners who can’t forgive themselves.

Paul O'Reilly SJ