Ten years ago, on Thursday 21st March 2002, Declan O'Toole and his two companions Fidelis Longole and Patrick Longoli, were driving back to their mission at Panyangara in Karamoja, North Eastern Uganda.
About forty kilometres from Panyangara, on a deserted stretch of road, two Ugandan soldiers stopped their car, identified them and shot them at point blank range. Evil men had plotted to silence Declan for the stand he took against the violent and indiscriminate interrogation of the people in their home villages, in a military operation of forceful disarmament.
Witnessing this first hand, Declan wrote, "What was taking place was, in one word, torture. People were being beaten until they admitted that they had a gun. It was a terrible and pathetic scene."
Declan's deep desire to witness to the liberating Gospel of Christ had carried him to the people of Karamoja and it was his free choice to stand with and defend 'the most abandoned' that brought him to his untimely and cruel death.
On 21st March this year we gathered at the very spot where Declan, Patrick and Fidelis were murdered, itself marked by a simple cross and inscription. As people prepared a place to celebrate the memorial Mass, I stood by the cross in reflective silence.
The flat dusty landscape stretched out for as far as the eye could see. The red soil was only partially hidden by tinder-dry grass. A few acacia trees, standing tall above the ubiquitous desert brush, clung to life in the parched soil. The sun in all its ferocity rudely reminded me that I was out of place, and there at my own risk. Only the constant swirl of hot breezes brought relief from the oppressive heat.
Two men suddenly appeared from nowhere, one with a panga (machete), the other carried something important in his hand. The former dug a series of small holes in the baked ground in a circle around the cross: the other placed tiny seeds in these holes, gently covering them with the hot soil. I overheard them inform a curious visitor that they were planting flower seeds.
At first sight, it was obvious to me that nothing like this could ever grow here, and at first thought, I concluded that this well-intentioned act was, in fact, a waste of time. Yet, on reflection, it was equally obvious that once the rains came, the land would burst into life. The grass, these trees and bushes, would all be transfigured by fresh green attire, and yes, those tiny seeds would surely blossom and flourish.
"Unless a wheat grain falls on the ground and dies, it remains only a single grain; but if it dies it yields a rich harvest", sprang to mind and there I had the Easter miracle unfolded before me, challenging me to open my eyes and heart to faith.
What followed was one of the most moving memorial Masses I have ever attended. The small crowd, seemingly appearing from nowhere, came to pay tribute to the loving service of a man who, with the support of his companions, stood for truth, justice and peace. His life and death will continue to inspire people to take up Jesus' cross of liberation and hope, long into the future.
The source of our hope – the hope that nothing any of us do for the sake of the coming of God's Kingdom is lost – is celebrated at this special time.
The betrayal, arrest, torture, unjust trial, humiliation and crude execution of Jesus shattered the hopes and dreams of those who believed in him. Could anything possible come from this except disappointment, bitterness and despair? Surely, nothing good can grow from this.
Yet by the gentle power of our loving God, and by this alone, does the desolation and hopelessness of Good Friday give way to the consolation and life-giving hope of Easter Sunday. This three day journey of faith invites us to make a leap, and the fact is, we need each other in order to attempt it. When we do, we will find it to be the most natural and obvious conclusion to all our doubts, the only real hope we can ever meaningfully embrace, and a source of eternal joy.
Bernard, Brendan and Thaddeus join me in wishing you a very happy, peaceful and hope-filled Easter. May you rise to new life with Christ in faith, hope and love.
Anthony Chantry MHM
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