Feed My Lambs, Tend My Sheep
These last, tender words of the Risen Jesus to Peter (Jn 21:15-17) as proof of a genuine love of the Lord (as well as a mandate) finds an echo in our heart-beats with a strange, stark strength today.
It is “Breaking news” of sweet comfort to our broken world turned upside down by a menacing global pandemic that seems to be powerfully pervading every sphere of our very existence. We are left with many searching questions: Who will feed the lambs? With what kind of “food”? Who are these sheep who need to be tended? Who are the most vulnerable? Who will take care of them? How would anyone feel equipped to tackle the gigantic issues before us to stay faithful to the same mandate of Jesus transmitted to us TODAY in the here and now?
On Saturday, April 25, 2020, the NDTV news sent shock waves that were even more earth-shaking than the pandemic itself. Together with the usual presentation and analysis of statistics of the devastating extent of the Coronavirus came an announcement that to me seemed inevitable, yet abhorrent when it finally appeared: The rapid rise of child sexual abuse and widespread child pornography! As one in a pastoral ministry involved with all segments of society with a special place in my heart for children and youth, I felt deeply disturbed. The magnetic mandatory words of my Master reverberated in my being, leaving me restless, compelling me to seek a solution, however small, to make a difference; to bring hope into a hopeless situation.
Ever since the “lockdown” was called for by our Prime Minister, I have been concerned about the well-being of our children in particular. Most of us adults have had to get busy thinking of big issues facing the family: mothers thinking of house provisions, fathers about finance and implications for the future, young couples feeling as if the ground under their feet was suddenly pulled away, students abruptly interrupted in their studies/examinations; the list is endless. Together with the daily ‘grind’ is the whole area of health: “social distancing”, measures to build immunity, and we know the rest of the “lessons” learnt and revised daily for the past month! Where are our children in this picture? Out of school but feeling suffocated and stifled in their homes, for many in Mumbai, just a single small room accommodating a whole family/extended family with even up to 10 members! As in one TV programme, I heard a poor young man say, “Social distancing is for the elite; not for us forced to be huddled together 24x7 in small homes or no homes at all!”
An urgent clarion call for us is to turn our attention towards the “lambs” and “sheep” in our families, neighbourhoods, parishes to begin with, and to seek creative and wholesome ways of reaching out to them. The Church all over the world, our country, our Archdiocese, our parishes and individuals are doing yeoman service in literally “feeding” the poor and hungry— a colossal task that has no end. Commendable! What about the emotional “tending” of these and other masses of people who find themselves chained to pain, loneliness, grief, helplessness, fear, despair within loveless, lockdowned “prison walls”? As a counsellor in my parish, I sense the hour has come for concrete concerted action where perhaps it hasn’t been done already.
Here are some humble suggestions that might be just a drop in the ocean, yet a life-saving one, a “last straw”, a ray of hope, a light in the dark.
1. A Counselling ‘HELPLINE’ could be established in parishes, comprising mental health professionals/counsellors who would volunteer their services in this crisis. True, Mumbai has these in different places, but many of them charge fees too high for most people. If possible, we could make such a helpline more amenable to all age-groups, including children in our parishes who would need this service.
2. With regard to CHILDREN, as I expressed my deep concern for their well-being earlier, I suggest we explore new proactive ventures that we in our families / neighbourhoods / SCCs/Clusters can initiate, to keep them happily engaged, to combat the harsh implications of the lockdown for them. In this context, I share the following small steps taken in my SCC and local Neighbourhood Children’s Council (N.C.C.). The latter, open to children of all faiths, has been functioning for two years now with school children from Class 4 to 12. We have formed a WhatsApp group (which includes their parents too so that they are in touch with what is put up on the group). More recently during Lent, we started a similar ‘Children’s group’ called ‘JOY: Jesus, You, Others’ for the Christians to deepen their relationship with Jesus.
3. During the Lockdown, our children in both these groups have been in touch with one another. Here is some of the feedback they gave me when asked how they were spending their time at home and what had kept them ‘going’. Not only have they felt connected and happy, but belonging to these groups gives them opportunities to be creative, to develop skills by answering ‘brain-teasers’/ quizzes shared on the group, to showcase talent online, to share an inspirational text or book, etc. Additionally what they appreciated in the newly formed ‘JOY’ group is that they were kept informed of various Lenten programmes, Holy Week services and devotions, daily/ Sunday Masses streamed ‘live’, the Holy Father’s messages as well as lighter inspirational songs, good movies for children and programmes that kept them entertained as well. Many said they appreciated the quality family time they had; they have learnt to take their share in chores, in helping younger siblings while also managing to complete their studies and assignments allocated by their schools. These heartening reports endorse what Tagore aptly says, “On the seashore of endless worlds, children meet.”
Whither COVID-19? How long will it last? Will it return? How will our world ever bounce back to normalcy? Questions that befuddle us, that could leave us extremely anxious, restless frustrated, hopeless... The challenge ahead is to face one day at a time, using all the inner and outer resources available to us. At the crossroads of life and death, health and illness, we have daily, hourly CHOICES to make: to be open to seeds of life wherever they are found OR to close ourselves in a dismal, dreary dungeon of our own making. Our Parish ‘Helplines’, if organised well, could be a beacon of hope for our people, especially for the most vulnerable, beckoning and empowering them to keep choosing life-giving, growth-enhancing options, as we surrender our fragile future to the unchanging, unconditional Love of God.
Sr Manisha Gonsalves, rscj
Sr Manisha is involved in the pastoral ministry of St Anthony’s Church, Malwani, Malad (West) as a guide to SCCs and a counsellor.