Welcome the stranger … transform the desert into a forest
Inspired by CAFOD’s campaign, we journeyed in silence, reflection and prayer, drawing on the experiences of refugees across the world and undertaken in solidarity with them. We stopped to think what we had with us in our bags and to imagine that those few things were all we had in the world. We looked at photos of families torn apart or missing; we contemplated our own family photos on our phones and imagined what must it be like to leave someone behind or to lose someone close to us as a result of war, climate change, hunger? Tears were shed. And at each stop we prayed for justice, compassion and courage to open our hearts wide, to welcome the stranger, and to make their plight known.
Focolare members in Lampedusa have been at the forefront of welcoming boats of refugees from the very first perilous journeys across the Mediterranean and continue to do so. Some of them mothers who simply asked themselves … if they were my own children? The presentation of a Lampedusa cross, carved from the wreckage of a boat, and given to the monks of Ampleforth, somehow linked us to our Focolare family in Lampedusa.
How poignant when the following day we learnt that a friend seeking asylum from persecution, who had been with us in the Mariapolis, had returned home to find herself detained by the authorities and sent to the UK’s arguably worst immigration removal centre. Fortunately, a judicial review has been initiated and we hope and pray that she will not be deported in the coming days.
Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week was a fitting backdrop for the theme of this year’s Mariapolis: ‘Jesus crucified and forsaken – the God of our Times’. We contemplated him in the divisions of our world today and found in the figure of the forsaken one who cries out ‘Why?’ on the cross, the answer to all our questions ‘why?’. In him we found the courage to go beyond the barriers that keep us from loving one another and opening our hearts wide. One young mum commented, ‘Thanks to someone’s experience on forgiveness I was able to forgive my father after more than 10 years of bearing a grudge against him.’
The Focolare Movement takes Jesus’ prayer, ‘Father that all may be one’ (Jn 17:21) as its magna charta … inspiring it to work for unity on all levels: between different ethnic groups, between generations, between rich and poor, between the different Churches, with faithful of the major world religions and with those of no particular religious affiliation.
Catholics, Anglicans and members of the Free Churches were all present at the Ampleforth Mariapolis and whilst rejoicing in being together for the procession of palms – we were reminded forcefully of the need to continue to strive for unity between our different denominations as the Palm Sunday procession finished with us peeling off to our different services.
Mariapolis meaning “City of Mary” is a temporary city that wants to experience and show what life can be like if Jesus’ commandment of mutual love is lived in all the minutiae of everyday life. It doesn’t end in Ampleforth. It’s the starting point urging us to bring the joy of the Gospel to every situation.
Last summer Pope Francis dropped in to the Mariapolis in Rome and remarked, “… two images come to my mind: the desert and the forest … all of you, take the desert to transform it into a forest. You go to where the desert is, to where there is no hope, and do things that make the desert turn into a forest.” After four days of contemplation, reflection, joy and laughter, there lies our challenge.