Sunday, April 24, 2005

The Teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva in an African Context by Margaret Ogola, M.D. of Kenya

An article by noted Kenyan author Margaret Ogola on the relevance of St. Josemaria´s teachings to Africa.

Published originally on

Love is perennial and youthful. So is this continent, 60% of whose population are under the age of twenty-five. The momentum of the youthfulness of the peoples of Africa will necessarily carry this continent beyond it's current woes and upheavals to the realization of a truly African dream where people will take responsibility for their homeland and cease to expect help from where none is forthcoming.

There are many things which move me deeply in the teachings of Saint Josemaría Escrivá, but perhaps the one that has had the greatest impact on my life, my outlook, my hopes, is the concept that every baptized person is expected to take full responsibility for the attainment of full Christian and social maturity. There are no second-class citizens in the world-view of the founder of Opus Dei. All are called to struggle for sanctity right where they are — sanctity being walking in friendship with God in the highways and alleyways of this world wherever his children are to be found — working, suffering, living.

“Heroism, sanctity, daring, require a constant spiritual preparation. You can only give to others what you already have. And in order to give God to them, you yourself need to get to know him, to live his Life, to serve him.” (The Forge, no. 78). This ringing call is not for a few specially gifted or set apart people, but amazingly enough it is for all. I truly found it amazing that anyone could take the lay faithful so seriously. This attitude does cut dependency at the knees. One has no choice but to stand up and be counted.

Africans too, and in particular, are not second-class citizens of the world doomed to be dependent on others for all manner of handouts. Help yes, as one brother gives to another who happens to have fallen into difficulties — culpable or otherwise — looking him straight in the eye, as a brother who stands on an equal but firmer footing, should. In this regard, I have great doubts regarding the form of aid now being doled out to Africa by the monetary institutions and governments of the west and in particular through the state. There is something disturbingly pernicious about a type of aid that leaves an entire continent not only inescapably indebted, but also totally dependent. But help yes — as one brother gives to another.

One tends to forget, perhaps because of the rapid adaptability of Africans, that only barely one hundred years ago, this continent was in the early iron-age. Within this short period of time we have had to adopt systems of thought and governance that others have had hundreds or even thousands of years to experiment with. What's more, we have had to do it in their languages. Thereby we have gained and lost at the same time. In having no choice but to learn and be facile in other languages we have had the great benefit of looking into the minds of others and into the minds of their great thinkers and have greatly benefited. But often these others have felt no great need to learn our languages and thus be in a position to look into our souls to truly understand why we laugh when we laugh and why we weep when we weep. This is diminishing, for in every language is coded generation upon generation of human aspiration and endeavour. No wonder some great attempts to assist have foundered.

In any case the African loves to learn and this longing finds powerful echo in the words of Bl. Josemaría. “Study. Study in earnest. If you are to be salt and light, you need knowledge and capability. Or do you imagine that an idle and lazy life will entitle you to receive infused knowledge?” (The Way, no. 340). Indeed Josemaría Escrivá urges all his children to strive to have the doctrine of theologians and the piety of little children. In short, he does not encourage the kind of easy formulae for rapid salvation that some look for — a formalistic or pietistic religion where attendance without commitment or emotions without thought is the order of the day. Rather he urges a deep interior transformation with a sportsmanlike approach to the interior life — never remaining down after a fall. “Another fall... and what a fall! Despair? No! Humble yourself and through Mary, your Mother, have recourse to the merciful love of Jesus. A miserere — "have mercy on me" — and lift up your heart! And now, begin again.” (The Way, no. 711). Also “Tackling serious matters with a sporting spirit gives very good results. Perhaps I have lost several games? Very well, but — if I persevere — in the end I shall win. ”( Furrow, no. 169). And Africans are nothing if not sportsmen and women.

The family is central to the being of the peoples of Africa. It is not only a social safety net for almost everyone, it is also a source of deep identity — a revelation of who one really is. The loss of family values harms every group of people, but it has been catastrophic for Africans. Indeed it is this loss that has opened doors to the Aids pandemic, which in Africa seems to acquire an increase in virulence and ferocity not seen elsewhere. Josemaría Escrivá stands out because of his single-minded defense of the family, of the sanctity of marriage and of the dignity of fruitful love. “Do you laugh because I tell you that you have a "vocation to marriage"? Well, you have just that — a vocation. Commend yourself to St. Raphael that he may keep you pure, as he did Tobias, until the end of the way.” (The Way, no. 27). Also: “In national life there are two things which are really essential: the laws concerning marriage and the laws to do with education. In these areas God's sons have to stand firm and fight with toughness and fairness, for the sake of all mankind.” (The Forge, no. 104).

Finally, the African woman carries heavy burdens both figuratively and actually, but her dependability is phenomenal. In the midst the swirling chaos of day-to-day living she holds the family together with nothing more substantial than the strength of her love. And to her the new saint has this to say: “Woman is stronger than man and more faithful in the hour of trial: Mary Magdalene and Mary Cleophas and Salome. With a group of valiant women like these, closely united to our sorrowful Mother, what work for souls could be done in the world!” (The Way, no. 982).

The teachings of Josemaría Escrivá resonate with the perennial youthfulness of love, to which Africa, amidst the crises and problems besetting her, responds. “These world crises -the founder of Opus Dei states quite calmly- are crises of saints.” (The Way, no. 301)

Margaret Ogola, M.D. is Medical Director of the Family Life Association of Kenya and for the Cottolenga Hospice for HIV-positive orphans. She and her husband, George, have four children. She is also an award winning author of The River and the Source (a novel) and Education in Human Love.

Sunday, February 20, 2005

Love, Marriage, and the Teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva by Mary Brennan

No one would deny that the environment in which young people today fall in love and feel called to commit themselves to each other in marriage is a very difficult one indeed. Young people today have grown up in the wake of the sexual revolution that has wreaked havoc on individuals and families — on each of them as individuals and on their own families. Many of them have experienced the divorce of their parents. The great majority of them have been “sexually active” from a very young age, encouraged by a culture that worships free sexual expression, and doctors and schools that casually distribute contraceptives to keep them “safe.” For many this has meant that their heart has been broken numerous times as these immature, uncommitted relationships have ultimately come to an end. Many have chosen to live together before marriage, believing that they are unready for the commitment of marriage, and unsure about their ability to live up to the responsibilities that marriage entails. Many fear that their future marriage will end in misery and divorce, as they have seen so many other marriages end.

It is precisely this landscape that silently cries out for some good news. Young people today yearn to learn the truth about themselves, those they love, and even God. They are open to learning about commitment, faithfulness, sacrifice, and purity. They long for the hope that their love for each other can last a lifetime. My husband and I have been privileged to serve these couples as they come to the Church for marriage preparation. It is a blessing for us to share with them that their love for each other is holy — that God loves their love for one another. We are honored to be able to share with them that their bodies also are holy, and that they are deserving of the very best, no matter what their background or their past.

Married for twenty years now, my husband David and I have been involved in marriage preparation programs since we were newlyweds. (The priest who witnessed our marriage wisely saw that if we were active in the Church, we would be more likely to continue to grow in our faith, and would have a stronger marriage.) All couples who come to the Catholic Church for marriage are required to take a marriage preparation course, an approach that acknowledges the difficulties that couples face, and seeks to help them discern if the decision to marry this person is a good one, and give them the skills and knowledge that will help them navigate the inevitable daily tensions, stresses, and even crises.

About five years ago now, David and I volunteered to direct the marriage preparation program at our parish, St. Mary’s in Franklin, Massachusetts. We have had the pleasure of designing a program and getting others involved in it, great married couples and priests who have been incredibly generous and hard working. Our program consists of three sessions, and we offer it twice a year. Over the past five years, we have had the joy of spending time with about 150 engaged couples, couples who typically exude love and expectation. We have put time into this work because we believe that it makes a difference for the engaged couples, but it has immeasurably enriched our own relationship as well, as twice a year we immerse ourselves in how best to cultivate and strengthen married love.

The program we have designed is based on the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love. “There are in the end three things that last: faith, hope, and love, and the greatest of these is love.” ( St. Paul ) An important part of the program is spent teaching the couples, as most have not been practicing their faith, what the Church teaches on marriage, the sacraments, and the purpose and meaning of human sexuality. We have talks on making good use of the engagement period, human virtues, communication, finances, intimacy, children, extended family, and natural family planning. Though the engaged couples come to us nervous and anxious as to what to expect, the overwhelming majority tell us that the experience has been rewarding and worthwhile.

The engaged couples are interested in learning about their faith, something most of them have not thought about for a while. They enjoy hearing from the married couples who share their experiences, and appreciate learning healthy ways to communicate. We emphasize practicing human virtues, because as my husband says, “Before marriage it’s all about choosing the right person. After marriage, it’s all about being the right person.” The session on human sexuality seeks to challenge them in a nonjudgmental way, and the vast majority are open to hearing what the Church has to say about living purity before and during marriage, the true meaning of the sexual act, and the gift of children, as well as premarital sex, living together before marriage, and contraception and sterilization. They are open because, as Pope John Paul II says in his book, Crossing the Threshold of Hope: “After all, young people are always searching for the beauty in love. They want their love to be beautiful. If they give in to weakness…in the depth of their hearts they still desire a beautiful and pure love.”

To be truthful, there have been moments when facing a group of blank faces when we might have been afraid — afraid of negative reactions, afraid of opposing the status quo — but we have been strengthened, enriched, and even spurred on, by the beautiful teachings of St. Josemaria Escriva, the founder of Opus Dei. My husband and I were introduced to the writings of this saint, and the spirit of Opus Dei, when we met a woman who is now a good friend of ours. At the time we had been married not quite ten years, and had the usual difficulties, mostly arising out of our fears. Fears regarding finances, our stubborn faults, and fears of what troubles the future might bring. What this new friend and her lively family — who are devoted to St. Josemaria and live his spirit — what they introduced us to was family life lived with joy, not fear. A family where each new child is welcomed and cherished, not feared and avoided. A cheerful, warm, and bright home. A husband and wife unreservedly devoted to each other and to their children. Witnessing their happiness had a profound effect on us.

As we learned more about Opus Dei, we saw how the spirit of Opus Dei had shaped their lives. St. Josemaria always encouraged spouses to be cheerful and affectionate with one another. He spoke about how we can keep our love young by doing the small things of everyday life with hearts full of love for each other. St. Josemaria taught that we should not be afraid to sacrifice for the good of the other, that children are a gift from God, and that to be generous in accepting children is always a blessing. He talked about making our homes bright, cheerful, happy places, and to be cheerful for others, even when we don’t feel so cheerful inside. St. Josemaria encouraged all people to have what he called a “sporting spirit,” to face difficulties with energy and enthusiasm. He emphasized that we all need to “begin again” whenever we find that we have fallen into old bad habits — to just pick ourselves up and begin again, as a little child would do, without looking back. He taught that we are all called to be saints, and that by struggling against our faults and uniting ourselves to God we can sanctify ourselves, our families, and the world around us.

This spirit, which has brought so much joy and peace to our family, animates our work with young couples. About helping others to integrate their faith more deeply into their everyday lives, St. Josemaria said: “be assured that it is a matter of making people happy, very happy.” My husband and I are convinced that the truths about man and woman and God, about their holy love for one another, and the beautiful spirit of Opus Dei, can help couples to be happy — very, very, happy. It is my hope that everyone will see the need to share the good news of Christ’s transforming love with all young people today, because they are deserving of the very best that we have to offer. As St. Josemaria wrote in his book The Way: “Don’t let your life by sterile. Be useful. Blaze a trail. Shine forth with the light of your faith and of your love.” The blessings that we each have received should beckon us to give generously of ourselves in the service of fair, beautiful, and lasting love.

Mary and her husband David live in Franklin , Massachusetts with their six children. They are members of the Archdiocesan Office of Marriage Ministries Advisory Board.