When I was a stranger, you made me welcome

Fr Joe Ryan shares some powerful Scriptural texts about social justice and how they’ve shaped his life, faith and ministry.

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Growing up in rural Ireland in the 1950’s and 1960’s was a special time. Pope John XXIII brought a breath of fresh air into the Church with Vatican II and, there was a missionary spirit alive. 

When I was a teenager, the Columban Bishop, Thomas Quinlan, came to speak to us about his missionary work in Korea. He spoke of the Death March under communist rule and his years in prison. Here were sown for me, the seeds of a challenge to go and proclaim the same Gospel message that inspired him.

In the seminary, one of our professors inspired a love of Scripture in his students. He brought the word alive and we came to understand that we can hear God speaking to us today when we hear a powerful reflection on Scripture. One of the passages that has influenced my life and my ministry is the one about Judgement Day:

 “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you made me welcome, lacking clothes and you clothed me, sick and you visited me, in prison and you came to see me.” Then the upright will say to him in reply, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? When did we see you a stranger and make you welcome, lacking clothes and clothe you? When did we find you sick or in prison and go to see you?” And the King will answer, “In truth I tell you, in so far as you did this to one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it to me” (Matthew 25: 35-40).                 

This passage has also encouraged me during my 14 years as Chair of Westminster Justice and Peace Commission. Hopefully, he will not say “You neglected to do this for my brothers and sisters” or “You could have done more”. Hopefully, he will say, “I was a stranger and you did all you could to make me feel welcome”.

Being able to see Christ in others is a Christian challenge. It also gives motivation to our actions and our relation to others. I find St Paul’s prayers inspiring too. When I doubt my own abilities, one of my favourite prayers is:

“Glory be to him whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine; glory be to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever. Amen” (Ephesians 3:20-21).

We can make Paul’s prayer our prayer to grow in the knowledge of Christ; strengthening the very foundation of our faith journey in life as he revealed to us how we should imitate Christ’s humility:                                                      

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others and Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).

Both in my parish ministry and in the Justice and Peace issues, we are often afraid to try new things; and people say, “We have done this before and it didn’t work”.  I remind myself and people of the words of Jesus to the disciples who had laboured all night in their fishing boats and caught nothing. Jesus had been speaking to the crowds from Simon’s boat. “When he finished speaking, he said to Simon, ‘Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch’.” (Luke 5:4)

Simon responded, “Master, we have worked all night long but have caught nothing. Yet if you say so, I will let down the nets” (Luke 5:5). And when they put down the nets, they caught so many fish that their nets were beginning to break (Luke 5:6).

We need to believe we can make a difference in our world: whether it’s proclaiming the Good News or stewardship of Creation or Justice and Peace work. We need to understand that Jesus’ authority assert his right to command and dispose of our activities, resources and persons of all his disciples.

We start by spending time and energy in prayer and study to unpack the treasures of the Scriptures. When we work on a passage of Scripture – even one that seems like an obscure passage, it reveals the mind of God to us. And, God speaks to us.

Fr Joe Ryan