Homily by Paul Zilonka, C.P.

Homily by Paul Zilonka, C.P.
The Cathedral of St. Paul of the Cross at Mandeville
October 23, 2005

30th Sunday in Ordinary Time
Readings: Exodus 22:20-26; 1 Thessalonians 1:5c-10; Matthew 22:34-40.

After this week of flood rains from Hurricane Wilma, I want to tell you a tale of three ships. Light waves slapped gently against the bow of the first ship as it turned into the harbor. The seaside town grew larger on the horizon. Though the missionary on board had traveled widely for decades, he now looked out from the deck at a land he had not yet visited. Word had gone ahead of his arrival, so some people were at the dock to offer hospitality for this stranger who shared their Christian faith. On the surface, it was a common enough daily event in seaport towns all over the world, except this visitor from Jerusalem arrived as a prisoner in chains provided by the Roman Empire.

St. Paul the Apostle, his Roman guards, other prisoners, and traveling companions had been shipwrecked off Malta where they spent the winter season, the time of year when sailing ships stayed in safe harbors. The final chapter of the Acts of the Apostles recaps their short journey of a few days in the spring of 61 A.D. from Malta to Sicily to Puteoli, an ancient seaport near Naples in Italy.

“We set sail on a ship that had wintered at the island. It was an Alexandrian ship with the Dioscuri (the twin children of Zeus) as its figurehead. We put in at Syracuse and stayed there three days, and from there we sailed round the coast and arrived at Rhegium. After a day, a south wind came up and in two days we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and were urged to stay with them for seven days. And thus we came to Rome. The brothers from there heard about us and came as far as the Forum of Appius and Three Taverns to meet us. On seeing them, Paul gave thanks to God and took courage” (Acts 28:11-14).

The simplicity of this biblical description masks the tremendous significance of this journey not only for St. Paul the Apostle who would die a martyr’s death in Rome, but for the growth of the church in Italy, and eventually Jamaica. Some eighteen hundred years later, another ship would carry four Passionists from Rome in Italy to the Port of Philadelphia in Pennsylvania in the late autumn of 1852. These three Italians and one Polish Passionist zealously set about founding the Province of St. Paul of the Cross in the midst of the social and moral turmoil of the bloody American Civil War and its aftermath, whose effects linger still today.

Nineteen hundred years after St. Paul’s arrival at Puteoli, a third little ship headed toward Kingston Harbor in the spring of 1955. The passengers had set sail from Miami at 6 PM on March 26th with stops at Port-au-Prince in Haiti and another in Santo Domingo. Now around 8 o’clock in the morning of the first day of April, light waves slapped gently against the bow of the ship as the seaside town grew larger on the horizon. Despite decades of missionary life and preaching both in the United States and China, the five Passionist missionaries on board looked out on a land four of them had not yet visited. Fr. Canisius Hazlett had brought word about his four companions in his previous visit to Jamaica when he came to prepare for this new ministry so filled with the spirit of the original Passionists who had come to America a hundred years earlier. It was a common enough daily event in seaport towns all over the world, but as we gather here today, we realize how momentous that brief sea voyage was. We Christians never approach the day-to-day world of calendars and journeys in a purely secular way.


For instance, April 1st in 1955 was the Friday before Palm Sunday. The Passionist Community throughout the world was celebrating the Feast of the Seven Sorrows of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The antiphon at Lauds recalled the words of Jesus on the cross to his mother and the beloved disciple. “Woman, behold thy son. Son, behold thy mother” (John 19:26-27). This important text for Passionist meditation invited us to stand by the cross of Jesus with his mother and the beloved disciple. We recognize the apostolic dimension of this scene as it dramatically describes the relationship between Mary and the disciples of Jesus for all time, the role of Mary as Mother of the Church.

The first Passionists arrived on a small ship named Evangeline which had formerly traveled a colder, more treacherous North Atlantic route between Boston, Massachusetts and Yarmouth, Nova Scotia. In 1955, the Evangeline plied the Caribbean waters whose warmth turned treacherous when it fueled the destructive late summer hurricanes which Jamaicans would come to know by name over the decades – Charlie, Gilbert, Ivan, Emily, now Wilma come lately! But in April, the shallow waters of the Western Caribbean are peacefully smooth. “Evangeline” is reminiscent of the Acadian connection of New England literary fame. But as Thomas Merton once wrote, “There are no coincidences in God.” Appropriately the name of the ship itself enshrined the Greek word for ‘gospel,’ the evangelion which the Passionists came to preach in word and deed.

Like Paul who came to Rome by sea voyage and was received by fellow believers already there, so the first Passionists were welcomed to Jamaica by Jesuit Bishop John Mc Eleny and Jesuit Superior Denis Tobin who waited at the Kingston dock to offer hospitality for these strangers who shared their Christian faith. Frs. Cormac Shanahan and Callistus Connolly went immediately to the church of St. Elizabeth on Ransford Avenue, between Halfway Tree Road and Maxfield Avenue. The Jesuits had founded that church community and constructed its distinctive open air building several years earlier. Within hours of our arrival in Jamaica, we began our pastoral care of St. Elizabeth’s, and Fr. Cormac became pastor of St. Peter Claver Church following Monsignor Vidal’s leadership.

On Palm Sunday Frs. Anthony Feeherry and William Whelan made their way here to Mandeville to assume responsibility for pastoral ministry in the civil parishes of Manchester and St. Elizabeth. At that time, this whole region was cared for solely by Fr. Benedict Reillly SJ whose home church was dedicated to St. Luke the Evangelist, just around the corner on Manchester Road. Like Paul the Apostle, our first five Passionists “gave thanks to God and took courage” for their new ministry from the zealous Jesuits and many Jamaicans who warmly welcomed them to their faith-filled church communities. On Holy Thursday, April 7, Fr. Canisius joined them in Mandeville and, less than a week after the Evangeline had docked in Kingston, he wrote in his letter back to the Province, “We are now on our own.”

In one sense these first Passionists in Jamaica were on their own with new responsibilities that first Easter in Mandeville and Kingston. Like the first disciples of Jesus who felt very much on their own after Jesus left them, the first Passionists could not know then how many dozens of Passionist priests, Passionist brothers, Passionist sisters and Passionist lay missionaries would follow them to these shores between then and now. Whatever dreams they had on April 1st, they soon realized that the Spirit of Jesus accompanied them with power and creative love every day of their lives. Throughout this half-century, many people abroad have generously supported this ministry through their personal donations, church collections, mission clubs, and the Province mission offices.


We need to remember the holiness of that simple beginning in order to appreciate fully the enormous scope of what God can do when people of faith give themselves wholeheartedly to the Lord. If we lose that sense of the sacred in our daily experience, we might be tempted to reduce these fifty years of Passionist ministry to a computer graph of plus and minus factors, a mere list of who is alive, who is dead, and what development projects have endured through the decades. That would be an impoverished version of the truth.

If I were intending to highlight the significant developments of this half-century through the zeal and generosity of all the people associated with this Passionist ministry, we would be here for hours. They lived through extraordinary times. They blessed the dead and comforted the hundreds of survivors of the Kendal Train tragedy. They celebrated Jamaica’s First National Independence Day in 1962. Certainly, they sang the National Anthem for the first time that day with all the emotion I feel when I sing it – “Jamaica, Jamaica, Jamaica Land We Love.” In 1965, they welcomed Bishop Mc Eleny and Auxiliary Bishop Samuel Carter back from the closing session of Vatican II. They set about courageously implementing its groundbreaking Decree on Ecumenism with lasting benefit for the entire community of Christian believers in this island nation.

During the 60s, they pioneered collaborative ministry with lay volunteers from the United States to provide religious education in Mandeville, Black River, Cross Keys and elsewhere. Passionist International Volunteers serve once again in the rural church communities of St. Mary. They welcomed Jamaican men into formation programs for Passionist Community life, inaugurated the Mt. Calvary Retreat ministry in 1973, and rejoiced in the ordination of the first Jamaican Passionist priest, Fr. Bertram Chin, in 1991. That same summer, we celebrated the ordination of Bishop Paul Michael Boyle as first Bishop of the Apostolic Vicariate of Mandeville. Within a few short years, all the quiet persevering labor of those early years culminated when Bishop Boyle’s leadership brought the Vicariate to maturity as the Diocese of Mandeville. With the recent appointment of Bishop Gordon Bennett, SJ as second Bishop of Mandeville, we have come full circle since those first Passionists were welcomed by the Jesuits on the Kingston dock on April 1st, 1955, ministering together for the sake of God’s people here.

Passionist ministry in Jamaica began with the solemn celebration of Holy Week and Easter, a most fitting liturgical consecration of this new ministry for a religious community steeped in the Memory of the Passion. Only the Memory of the Passion can adequately make sense of these five decades of Passionist life and ministry in Jamaica, a people and land which we as a Province have loved so deeply. As often as we recall that first week of our history here, we will be reminded that the ministry is not really ours. Rather it is the continuation of the Lord’s own salvific ministry sealed in death on Calvary and poured out on us in risen glory and the Spirit-filled mandate to go into all nations, making disciples, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that the Lord commanded. (Matt 28:16-20)


The scriptures of today’s liturgy draw attention to three important qualities of the ministry rendered by everyone associated with us here over the past fifty years. In the Gospel, Jesus makes clear for all time that love for God and love of our neighbor together are the fundamental motivation for everything we Christians do in life. But, as the old saying goes, love is not love till it is given away. The love which vowed Passionists and our associates have given away over the years has been eminently PRACTICAL. They were and continue to be sensible people who engaged in a hands-on ministry of building schools, churches and rectories. Forty-five years ago, Fr. Ernest Hotz built a two-story boarding school in Balaclava with the largest auditorium in St. Elizabeth. It was strong enough to survive an atomic bomb but now every inch of it is dedicated to the medical care of elderly Jamaicans.

They devoted themselves to witnessing to Christ by sharing their helpful talents in every field of interest and every aspect of life that was truly ennobling. Many like Fr. Brice Edwards served on boards of schools as well as business organizations to encourage charitable programs. Though they had come from the United States, inspired by the commitment of Paul of the Cross to simplicity of life, these Passionists in Jamaica embraced the evangelical life style of Jesus’ own disciples, traveling light, so that they could give their full attention to walking with their Jamaican church communities as fellow brothers and sisters.


In today’s second reading, that other Paul of apostolic fame says well in his remarks to the church community at Thessalonica what Passionists and their associates in Jamaica have tried to live. “You know what sort of people we were among you for your sake. And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, receiving the word in great affliction, with joy from the Holy Spirit, so that you became a model for all the believers (elsewhere).” Like Paul the Apostle, Passionists have been PASTORAL in the best sense of the word, encouraging their congregations to walk in the way of Christian truth, showing esteem for every member of the church community no matter what distinctions others might make in the secular world.

Though Fr. Martin Joseph Tooker could not drive, he spent his first days in Mandeville by riding around the towns of Manchester on a bread delivery truck to get to know the people. Like Jesus, the Good Shepherd, they were anxious to be with their people, and especially to learn from their Jamaican friends by walking at their side in good times as well as difficult ones in this stunningly picturesque country. They were energetic and resourceful like Fr. Charles Dougherty who twenty years ago invited the Passionist Sisters of New England in the United States to minister with fellow Passionists in Mandeville.

Practical and Pastoral they were in their commitment. But the first reading from Exodus remarkably offers us that third quality of Passionist ministry which seems most memorable to me as I reflect on this half-century. Today’s excerpt from the book of Exodus reminds us of the slavery of God’s people in ancient Egypt, and that too many past immigrants to Jamaica arrived here as Paul the Apostle did at Puteoli, wearing the chains of oppressive masters. In each instance, the Bible affirms that the Lord hears and says, “I am compassionate.”


Since the name of our religious community, “Passionist,” is not as familiar as Jesuit, Dominican or Franciscan, many of us Passionists over the years have heard ourselves mistakenly introduced as being a “passionate” priest, or a member of the “Passionate Order.” Though technically wrong, that word “PASSIONATE” would be a fitting badge of honor for the women and men inspired by the Memory of the Passion of Jesus who have journeyed to Jamaica during these fifty years to lend their hands, head and hearts to building up the local church in its commitment to all the people of Jamaica.

“Passion” in its original meaning denotes the ability to be moved, to suffer, to be like clay on which impressions can become lasting imprints, and to be shaped by experience. A more detailed rendition of Passionist history throughout these decades would reveal the passion of strong feelings, occasionally clashing visions, dark nights of the spirit. But, always and above all, these years transformed human passion into compassionate deeds, zealous energy that God’s word be proclaimed, God’s love be shared, and God’s justice come to earth through our ministry.

While our men first lived and ministered to people in the streets of Kingston surrounding lower Maxfield Avenue, Bob Marley was just a few streets away composing lyrics which continue to inspire. In Redemption Songs, Marley wrote, “Emancipate yourself from mental slavery, none but ourselves can free our minds.” Conversion of mind is important, but scripture convinces us that only God can truly free all of us today from that slavery which keeps us from living upright lives.

The letter to the Hebrews serves us well today as we move forward, strengthened by our glance backward on this anniversary. “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfector of our faith. For the sake of the joy that lay before him, he endured the cross, despising its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God….so strengthen your drooping hands and your weak knees… Strive for peace with everyone, and for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” (Heb 12:1-2, 3-4, 14).

My friends, we are surrounded by such a cloud of Passionist witnesses and their associates. Some of them rest among us here in this Church garden. Twenty-two of the more than fifty vowed Passionists who were formally stationed here, Americans, Canadians, Congolese and beloved Jamaicans, are still alive. May their practical, pastoral and passionate example inspire us to become imitators of them and of the Lord, to whom be all glory, thanks and praise forever and ever. Amen.

* * * * * * * *