Further Articles and Resources

Further Articles and Resources

The Gospel With Flair. Spend Yourselves. Be Different.

Downlands Oration 1990, by Bishop E. James Cuskelly MSC

cuskellyLadies and gentlemen - Good evening.

Some years ago I paid a visit to the Missionaries of the Sacred Heart in Indonesia. In Amboina, half an hour after my arrival, somebody shot the presbytery dog. This was done (so they informed me) because the dog was large and meaty and would make an excellent dish for a festive celebration about to take place. Next evening, I was invited to a festive meal. Spread around the table were several platters containing different kinds of meat. I asked one of the Indonesian priests: "Is there any dog on the table?". He examined everything very carefully and said "No. No dog." I enjoyed the meal; but on the following day I told my priest friend that I had an upset stomach. "Oh", he said, "that, no doubt, is caused by the rat you ate last night"! 


Whenever the question you ask is limited, the answer you receive can prove to be inadequate. Tonight I am attempting to give an answer to a question, or a request, addressed to me. I hope that I will manage to give an adequate response, and that you will suffer no unpleasant after-taste.

I need hardly say that I feel truly honoured to have been invited to give this initial "Oration". I should like to thank those who invited me. I congratulate them on their choice, not their choice of a speaker, but their choice of a title for the speech. It does have a ring about it. "The Gospel with flair. Spend yourselves. Be different." The Committee came up with the title. That was the easy bit. I had to come up with the talk.

In preparing the oration and in deciding on the title, we were agreed that in beginning a new tradition, we should go back to the well-springs from which we drank in our College days. I should try to conjure up something of the special spirit which the MSC priests and brothers brought into our lives when we were young. As memories stirred among the Committee members, they thought  of John Doyle's favourite exhortation: "Be different'. They recalled the total dedication of the priests and brothers who "spent themselves" in the apostolate of education. Their generous fidelity came from the Gospel as, too, should come our call to be ourselves in our unique personal dignity, daring to differ whenever Christian principle demands it, whenever the Gospel calls us to do so. Someone stated his conviction that different though many MSC had been from one another, they had one thing in common: they did things with style: The Gospel with flair.

It has been my good fortune to have known many Missionaries of the Sacred Heart across the world and to have seen them in action. You people have met the Tylers, the Bells and the Codys. I have met our picturesque people in more than thirty nations. In their widely differing ways of spending themselves, there has indeed been flair, and always, at times heroically, they have lived the Gospel.

Just now I mentioned Fr. Cody. You knew him as a mild and gentle man. But, in his own way, he, too was different. He was a New Zealander. He disapproved of violence and war, and in order to avoid having to serve in the New Zealand army, he came to Australia where he lived the rest of his life in exile. For 21 years, from 1931 to 1951, he taught at Downlands. Many of you knew him but did you know that, outside, flying through the Australian night there is a moth named after him. As a seminarian, George Cody had a pen-friend called Gustaf Hulstaert. Gustaf, an MSC student in Belgium, had a special interest in the study of moths. Among the specimens sent him by George Cody was one that, as yet, had no scientific name. In honour of his pen-friend, he called it "sideridis codyi" (Of the Noctuidae family). Let me remind you, for reasons that will be obvious later, that the Oxford dictionary defines a moth as "an insect resembling a butterfly that usually flies by night."

mongo womanI met Fr. Hulstaert in Africa in 1971. As a young priest, he had gone as a missionary to the Belgian Congo. There, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, he gave names to all around him - to other moths, to butterflies, to trees and flowers. He noted the songs of the birds; he listened to the people as they sang. He wrote down their ballads and their stories. He became an expert in their language and their folklore. He was the one who supervised their translation of the bible. Altogether he published book-shelves full of works on the flora, fauna and folklore of Zaire, the old Belgian Congo. Let me quote just a few of their titles: 'The Mongo People and Witchcraft", 'The Bafoto language", "Ancient and Modern Mongo poems", 'The dialects of Bakutu", "The use of medicinal plants among the Mongo people", "The roots of Baum Philosophy". Certainly for me and possibly for you, these works would hardly make for bedside reading, but they show the wide range of his scientific mind. More than Stanley ever did, Gustaf Hulstaert discovered the Congo, its life, its spirit, its own special character. When last I heard, there was talk of erecting a statue to his memory, even though Stanley's statue has disappeared long since. The people knew who it was that helped them to discover themselves.

I should like to relate an incident which illustrates a different aspect of Gustaf's missionary life. Once as he and I were talking, there was a power failure and we were plunged into darkness. Gustaf said: 'Thanks be to God". I commented: "Not many people thank God when the lights go out." "Not many have the same reason, as I do", he said - and he explained his reasons to me. In the early 1960s there had been an attempted revolution in Zaire. After some initial successes, the revolutionaries were defeated by white mercenaries. In revenge, as they made their way homewards, they decided to wipe out any whites they met. They stopped at the Mission station of Boende, threatened the missionaries with their guns and bound their hands. A brother was allowed to start the generator for the lights of the mission station. When the MSC were told that they were to be shot, they asked for time to say a prayer. They knelt, and the lights went out. The natives were astounded - this was surely a sign that God was displeased with them. Terrified, they fled into the night. What had happened was less dramatic than they supposed. From the fuel supply to the engine which operated the generator, there was a long pipe with a tap at either end, one at the tank, the other at the engine. In his nervousness, the brother had forgotten to turn on one of the taps, the tap from the tank. The engine started because it was fuelled by the small amount contained in the connecting pipe. When this supply ran out, the engine stopped, the lights went out, the Africans fled, and a number of lives were saved - and ever since, some people give thanks to God when the lights go out.

I pass now from the jungles of Africa to one of the most sophisticated cities of the world. In Paris, the Place Pigalle is a well-known place. Tourists see it as a place of neon-lights and the Moulin Rouge. Locals know it as the King's Cross of Paris. I think of it, and so do the French MSC, as the field in which Fr. Jean Rosi worked for 45 years in an apostolate to the prostitutes of Paris. And, my friends, thereby hangs a tale the like of which you will seldom hear.

In his early years of priesthood, Fr. Rosi was like a French Fr. Cody. He taught maths and science in an MSC College, only to boys. At the age of 40, he was appointed to a parish in the suburbs of Paris. Once, on a parish picnic out in the fields, one of the parishioners took an obvious liking to him. She was a pretty young lass of seventeen. Like a butterfly she flitted around the flowers of the field. She brought a posy to give to Fr. Rosi, and told him that, like the girl in Les Miserables, she, too was called Cosette. Some weeks later, Cosette informed him that, although she might resemble a butterfly of the fields, in reality she was a moth who flew by night, attracted by the neon lights of Place Pigalle. She was a prostitute, so were her two sisters, and her other, as well. For Fr. Rosi this was considerably different from his previous experience of a "boys only" world; he came down to earth with a thud.

Those were the days of World War II, and the Germans had occupied Paris. One night, Fr. Rosi was hurrying home from a sick-call, when, suddenly, the lights of the city went out. For him this meant danger, not deliverance as it had meant for his MSC colleagues in Africa. For, the Germans had imposed a curfew on the city; anyone caught in the streets after curfew ran a grave danger of being shot. In the dark, the door of a house was quickly opened and a voice called: "Father, come in here." That night he took refuge in the house of Cosette's family.

Those were also the days when the Cardinal Archbishop of Paris was organising a sort of missionary drive among the workers and the underprivileged of the city. Fr. Rosi was invited to join the Cardinal's team and to suggest his own special field of work. Understandably, he felt that he was called to work somehow for the prostitutes of Paris. But his MSC Superiors had not a little difficulty in understanding what he was on about. "What! Going to meet prostitutes every night of the week? Sundays included! For spiritual reasons? What will people think if they know that the Rev. Fr. Jean Rosi, MSC, is out there in the Place Pigalle night after night - and we tell them that it is for the love of the Lord?" Poor Fr. Rosi was given an ultimatum - either give up the call-girls or live outside the Society. One night he found himself alone in the streets of Paris, his religious house closed to him, not knowing where to go. Eventually he found accommodation with an elderly benefactor.

place pigalle parisYou may wonder: how does one go about the specialised apostolate of converting prostitutes? In the seminary we learned a lot of things: how to prepare a sermon, how to hear confessions, how to baptise a baby. But there was never a course on "how to convert a call-girl". Fr. Rosi had to write his own do-it-yourself manual. He visited the Place Pigalle almost every night. He hung around. The word spread that there was an unusual sort of priest out there. Should anyone wish to get out of the trade and into something else, he would help. He never put pressure on the girls to change their way of life. Taking that decision usually meant a big cut in salary, which they might later regret. He hung around; for 45 years he hung around, and over the years girls came to him whenever they got to feeling the darkness of the neon lights, the despair and loneliness of the city streets, whenever they wanted to change their way of life.

Jean Rosi was a most interesting person to meet - a joyful man, with a bald head, bright blue eyes and a wonderful sense of humour. At the same time he had a serious and perceptive view of the world. 'The prostitute", he used to say, "stands as a symbol of our society. She sells herself for money - and we despise her. At times we despise her because she is a reproach to us, a reproach to a society which will sell its soul for money, for pleasure". He used to ask a rhetorical question: "Are there any values that our society - or people in our society - will not prostitute for material gain?" Mr. Tony Fitzgerald would have some interesting answers to that question.

Explaining his do-it-yourself method of dealing with prostitutes, Fr. Rosi used to say: 'The only way for a prostitute to be redeemed is for her to experience respect from others. Nobody – nobody, respects a prostitute. She is despised by other women; she is despised by men, even by the men who use her. But, deep down, she has a crying need to be respected. Most of all she needs to know that she is respected by a man, by a man who will respect her as a person, while not desiring her as an object."

For 45 years Fr. Rosi spent much of his time showing respect to the prostitutes of Paris. In turn, he won their respect and their affection. In French, the term "ton-ton" is a familiar form of "Uncle". Jean Rosi became known as "ton-ton Rosi", shortened eventually to "Tonsi". For many years you could go into the streets of Paris and ask about a man called "Tonsi". Almost every second person to whom you spoke would know whom you meant. Over the years he helped a number of girls to a more respectable - and happier - way of life. He was not popular with the pimps - he was too much of a threat to their trade. At least three times he was hit over the head and left unconscious in the streets. But, as long as he had the physical strength to do so, he kept going back. It was in the 86th and last year of his life, that he made his last visit to the Place Pigalle.

The first time that Tonsi told me his story I was fascinated. I asked him hundreds of questions. Finally I asked him: "What about Cosette, the first girl who came to you, the one who started it all. What happened to her?" "Ah, Cosette", he replied, "Today she is a very respectable grandmother in the south of France. After she married she used to come to Paris once a year to take me out to dinner. Once she said to me: 'Tonsi,Tonsi, you must give up this dreadful way of life; it is not fitting for a priest'. And I said to her: 'Ah my dear Cosette, have you forgotten who it was who got me into this terrible life in the first place?"

More than forty years after his superiors had left him alone in the streets of Paris outside his religious house, I had the privilege of welcoming him to our central house in Rome. As his Superior General, I was delighted to say: 'Tonsi, welcome home!' But that is another story.

Let me pass now from fairy-tale to tragedy, from Paris in Europe to Guatemala in Central America, where many MSC have lived and worked and some have died a violent death. Guatemala is a delight to the eye and the ear. The place-names ring like bells run wild: Chichicastenango, Sacapoulas, Chimaltenango. There, in the highlands, the air is clear as crystal, the colours of the Indian costumes are as brilliant as birds of paradise, and the sun sets in a glory that is as warm as the smile of God.

In January 1980, in this strikingly beautiful land, I met with a group of MSC missionaries, my friends and brother priests. On the shores of Lake Atitlan framed majestically by its three volcanoes, we talked of the coming murder of at least three of their number. We knew that a brutal military government had placed their names on its hit-list. In Australia, we find it hard to imagine the brutality that exists as an everyday reality in other lands. However, though hard for some to believe, it is easy to understand. Those of you who have seen the film "Romero" would have some idea of the situation in many Latin American countries.

The Spanish conquistadors invaded Guatemala in 1522. They had horses; they had guns. The Indians had neither and were easily defeated. The Spaniards took for themselves (and their descendants) all the more fertile lands. They made their own laws about land-registration. Their descendants prospered. Some of them became very rich with plantations of coffee, sugar, bananas and other tropical fruits. The Indians were driven back into the hills. They knew nothing about land-laws. Deprived of their former lands, they set up their little farms on the hillsides. There they grew their corn and their peppers. They ran a few cattle, pigs and chickens and eked out an existence right on the poverty line. There was a way for them to earn a few extra dollars and to clothe their families. They could go down to the coast to work on the farms and plantations of the rich. There they earned less than a dollar a day - about $5 a week (I'm speaking of the 1970s). Australians would earn between three and four hundred dollars a week for the same work. Most of their $5 a week would be paid back to the rich to buy food and clothes. The rich land-owners owned most of the shops as well.

Some years ago, MSC missionaries came from Spain to work among the Indians who had been Christians of sorts ever since the days of the conquistadors. The missionaries ministered to their spiritual needs. They also taught them better farming methods; they imported superior quality cattle, helped them to form their own cooperatives and to set up their own shops. The missionaries also talked about social justice and the concept of a just wage.

The rich families felt threatened. If they had to pay just wages, if they lost their cheap labour, they would lose a lot of their wealth. They paid the military to force the Indians to work for them, to destroy their cooperatives and even to shoot their leaders. The next step was for the 'big-wigs' in the military to decide that, if they were to do the dirty work for the rich, they should have some share of the riches. The army took over the government. Then retiring generals and colonels also took over tracts of land where the Indians were living. Invoking the old land laws, they claimed legal justification for this robbery. If the Indians resisted, they were shot.

Then the missionaries spoke out. They were not political men, but they were friends of the Indian people. They had the courage to insist that the human dignity of the Indians should be respected, that they had basic human rights: they had a right to a just wage; they had no obligation to work for the rich plantation owners - they had a right to the lands which the military officers were stealing from them. It was a crime to rape their wives and daughters; it was a crime to shoot their young men.

This proclamation of the Gospel did not please the rich and powerful. The rich resented losing cheap slave labour. The military resented losing a chance to get rich at the expense of the Indians. All of them feared that the priests would make public the atrocities which the soldiers were committing with the backing of the rich.

During those days in January 1980, on the shores of Lake Atitlan, surrounded by the beauties of God's creation, we MSC discussed the ugly deeds wrought by evil men. All of us were afraid. Some were afraid that they would be the ones to die; the rest of us feared that soon we would have to bury our dead. We asked whether it would not be best for those on the hit-list to leave the country while there was still time.

Someone said to me later: "There's an easy solution. You are their superior; just order them to leave." Like many easy solutions, this was no solution at all. I was sure that the missionaries would not feel bound by any such order. They believed that it was their duty to stay with their people, in spite of the danger to themselves. Furthermore there are two ways of destroying a missionary. One way is to assassinate him while he is carrying out his duties for his people. The other way is to have him appear to desert both his duty and his people. The second is, in its own way, a type of death, and, for the dedicated missionary, it is worse than the first. They stayed with their people and I went my way.

matyrs guatemualaDuring the next few months I heard of the death of three of our priests. Firstly we learned that José Maria Gran had been killed, and in Barcelona I shared in his parents' grieving. Then Faustino Villanueva was assassinated and later Juan Alonso. All three were the most pastoral and least political of men. Eventually, the Bishop declared the Diocese closed and ordered all priests and nuns to leave. It was then that the other MSC also left. Later some went back underground; we believe that at least one of them is dead.

You will wonder: But how can people get away with such injustice? They get away with it, firstly, by being very careful about interviews permitted to foreigners. Secondly, they have developed their own philosophy of "The national security as the greatest good". In this philosophy anything is justified if it protects "national security". All that is opposed to it is a crime. It is sedition to criticise officials; it is a crime to oppose the government. It is a crime to oppose the military even when they are stealing your lands. This sort of philosophy justifies all kinds of violence perpetrated by the government. And sadly, President Reagan and others believed that all opposition to a government in power was leftist or Marxist. Nobody asked: how did these people come to government? Do they govern justly? In Latin America many governments came to power by violence; and they govern by cruelty and greed. But - I am wandering from my central theme.

Like all religious orders, we MSC have a book of Constitutions which describes our ideals and our way of life. The second Vatican Council asked all religious to examine their Constitutions and bring them up to date. The old M.S.C. Constitutions contain the words:

"Following the example of Jesus, we will strive to lead others to God with kindness and gentleness. Trusting in God's grace, we will be ready, if necessary, to lay down our lives for them."

During the 1970s, there were some who thought that this was romantic stuff, beautiful but unreal. It should be omitted, they said. But in 1981 when we met in Rome to finalise the rewriting of our Constitutions, we thought of Jose Maria, of Faustino and Juan Alonso. We listened to this letter from the Church in Guatemala which read: "Your priests saw the Indians going hungry; they witnessed the suffering of the peasant families. They brought the light and strength of the Gospel to stop the enemies of God from spreading death through our land. This was their crime: to preach to all people their right to live with dignity." Then we took up our pens and we re-wrote with pride: "We will be ready, if necessary, to lay down our lives for our people."

Guatemala will be forever a part of my life. The Indians still suffer in that beautiful violent land. In spite of the sacrifices made, their world has not been re-born. We who knew them will live with the memory of our martyred brothers - especially when we hear songs like these: "Empty chairs at empty tables where my friends will meet no more. My friends, my friends, don't ask me what your sacrifice was for."

I shall move northwards now to the U.S.A. where I was invited once to conduct a seminar on training students for the priesthood. As part of our study I asked all present to describe, in one sentence, the kind of priest they would like to see coming out of their seminaries. In giving an answer to my own question I said: "priests who have a deep respect for every man, woman and child with whom they come in contact." The word "respect" has a strong meaning. It comes from the Latin respicere to look again. Every person is worth a second look. No-one deserves to be passed over. As I look around this room, I see a crowd, I see faces. But, if I look again, I see persons, individual men and women each with his or her, own special worth. One day it struck me that in inventing my own description of the ideal priest, I had simply described the MSC whom I had known:

My missionary in Africa, Fr. Hulstaert, had looked on all of God's creation with respect and wonder. He had shared with the world his respect for all creatures and all cultures.

In Paris, Tonsi had shown me how wide respect for people can reach and how redemptive it can be.

Both of them had said: what God made is wonderful, admire it, enjoy it; love it and laugh with it.

My priests in Guatemala had shown me that respect can be heroic, generous and self sacrificing.

As I recall my Downland's days, I remember that this respect was very much part of the MSC attitude towards us and part of the viewpoint that they wanted us to bring to the world. [A small indication of this was that they did not use nicknames for the boys. Bill Graham did but, of course, Bill was an exception - a magnificent maverick. Most nicknames were not based on respect - and therefore the Fathers avoided their use.]

That, I believe was the central focus of the MSC world vision, respect for all of God's creation with a special respect for every person. Therefore they could exhort us to "be different", out of respect for our own unique personalities, for our own individual God- given talents.

At times I wondered how well the MSC had succeeded in lighting a spark in the minds and hearts of those whom they were sent to influence. When I first asked myself this question, in 1975, I realised that in September of that year we would be provided with an answer of sorts as Papua New Guinea became an independent nation. You see, the MSC had been the first Catholic Missionaries to set up a permanent mission in Papua New Guinea in 1882. In the intervening years they had educated many and influenced many more of those who would attempt to shape the destiny of their own nation. [Bishop] John Doyle had worked there for several years. No doubt he would have told them to be different from many of the whites whom they saw in their land.

ted harrisMany missionaries worked there; many of them died there. If you walk through the mission cemeteries at Vunapope and Yule Island, you will be struck by the young age of most of those who lie there, victims of fever in their late 20s or early 30s'. They came from Europe before the modern anti-malarial drugs. They came young and young, too young, they died. At the end of 1940, Fr. Ted Harris left the Downlands staff and went to PNG to fulfill his missionary dream. The Second World War was in progress and the Japanese soldiers proved too strong for the Australian troops. Fr. Harris helped a number of them escape to Australia. He gave them his mission boat to do this, and helped them with food and medical supplies. As the last of them were leaving they tried to persuade him to come with them. They said: "The Japanese will kill you if you stay. If you come away with us, you can return at the end of the war and take over where you left off". Fr. Harris replied that he had thought matters over very carefully. Although he agreed that he would probably be killed, like the missionaries in Guatemala he felt that it was his duty as a missionary to stay with his people. "If I leave", he said, "the natives will feel that the Church has deserted them in their hour of need. I could never come back and preach the Gospel to them again." He stayed. Some years later a group of soldiers presented us with a chalice which bore the inscription: "In grateful memory of Fr. Ted Harris who gave his life for his faith and for the survivors of the 2nd 22nd battalion."

In 1975 we would have some idea of what their sacrifice was for, for the people of PNG would declare what kind of nation they wanted to be. Would they revert to the old paganism? Would they opt for the new paganism of greed and materialism that marks much of our modern world? As they prepared to write their new Constitution we wondered. What would they write, these speakers of pidgin, "Dispela em i wanpela naispela ples. Plenti pipal i kam: ol i gutpela pipal na oi i gat bigpela save". What would they write?

They wrote one of the world's most beautiful Constitutions and one of the wisest. They wrote:

"We see the darkness of neon lights. We see the despair and loneliness in urban cities. We see true social security and human happiness being diminished in the name of economic progress. We must not be afraid to re-discover our art, our culture. For us the only authentic development is integral human development. We take our stand on the dignity and worth of each Papua New Guinean man, woman and child.."

They took their stand on the respect due to their people and their culture. In the mission cemeteries, the young men could rest in peace. Of course, PNG will have to contend with all the effects of original sin; it can have no fairy-tale path to human happiness. But, at least it has laid a firm foundation of sound principles. May the people of this young nation fare well on the road they have taken.

In 1982 I came back to Queensland. Here I met, or met again, many Downland's past students. I met your wives, and more recently your husbands. I have seen some of you at work in your chosen professions. There you perform competently and with style. I have met some of you at home with your own families. I am convinced that your success, at home and in your work, has been due in no small measure to the fact that, long ago you learned to afford respect to all those who would come into your life. You have integrated well into your lives that key-concept of the MSC philosophy. There are exceptions of course, even among you. For, it seems to be part of the political creed of this country that a politician should never show the slightest shred of respect for a member of the opposition: "The honorable member for Huehuetenango is beneath contempt." However, even here there may be a saving grace. I am informed that when an ex-Downland's politician shows contempt for his political adversary, he does so with flair!

Ladies and gentlemen, men and women of Downlands, I come to the end of this inaugural "Oration". I have told you nothing new tonight. I have not tried to do so. I have interpreted my brief as one of helping us all to drink anew from the fountain that refreshed us when we were young. You, as well as I, have to thank Downlands for shaping our vision of the world and of life in it. I could have tried to give a philosophical analysis of that vision. Had I done so, I fear that you would have fallen asleep in your seat. Instead, I have tried to describe the vision at work in the world - a vision of human dignity, of human worth, a vision of respect shown to all people in the light of the Gospel. I have given some glimpses of the way in which that vision shaped the lives of other men and touched the lives of many. All of them were different; they spent themselves, and in their own way, each of them had  style. They loved what God had created, they enjoyed it. They took all things with light heart and good humour. Therefore they could leave them behind whenever the good of people demanded it. In one sense, these men were your brothers, too. It was my privilege to have known them. I hope that tonight it has been your pleasure to meet them. And as my heart was lifted and my life enriched by knowing them, so may yours be, too. Ladies and gentlemen, I thank you.