Witness - Chris Gleeson SJ
It is no accident that the Feast of St Stephen falls on the first day after Christmas—on Boxing Day, as we know it in Australia. On that day we can easily miss the meaning of this great feast as many of us gear ourselves to watch the opening over of the Melbourne Cricket Test, and then transfer our attention to Sydney Harbour to watch the colourful procession of yachts making their way through the Heads to Hobart.
In the midst of summer holiday festivities, the Feast of Stephen the second martyr follows hard on the heels of the birth of Jesus, the first martyr, reminding us that love knows no bounds of generosity. Love is a fire no waters can quench. The quality of our life is measured by the poverty or richness of our loving.
Sadly, martyrdom has received a good deal of bad press in recent times. Misguided religious extremists believe that they can gain a high place in heaven by destroying themselves and others in the name of religious martyrdom. It is the polar opposite of the true martyrdom of good people being prepared to give their lives so that others might have a richer life. Pope Paul VI once said that ‘young people will listen to witnesses before they will listen to teachers and to teachers only if they are witnesses’. What a powerful teacher and witness St Stephen, and the thousands of Christian martyrs following him, have been for our church and the wider community!
At the end of August this year I was asked to preach at St Paul’s Anglican Church in Ipswich at their annual Evensong celebrating the New Guinea Martyrs. Indeed, one of their own parishioners, Mavis Parkinson, a teaching missionary, was martyred at the age of 26 in 1942 by the advancing Japanese army. She joined a band of some 300 Christian martyrs who died in PNG during World War II.
In preparing some notes for the Ipswich homily, I came across another story of martyrdom which in some way parallels that of the New Guinea martyrs and is close to our Australian Jesuit family. It involves the family of our beloved parish priest of St Ignatius’, Toowong, Peter Bernard Quin, and was recounted by Moira Laidlaw, the pastor at Crows Nest in Sydney, in 1988, when Peter was her colleague as parish priest of Lavender Bay on Sydney’s lower north shore. Let us hear the story, long but inspiring, in her own words:
‘The city church where I was minister was planning in 1988 to celebrate 100 years of worship in that area – firstly as a Presbyterian church and then as a Uniting church. We wanted to do something which would indicate how far the church had moved in 100 years, so clergy were invited from other denominations to take part in worship over the month selected for celebrations. The first Sunday saw the local Presbyterian minister invited. The second, the Catholic parish priest. Then the Baptist minister, followed by an Aboriginal pastor from a rural parish and finally—on
the fifth Sunday – the current moderator of the Uniting Church.
We had a lovely Japanese family as members of our church, and the baptism of their second child, Jun, had already been arranged for the second Sunday in the ‘centenary’ month. I called on the parish priest, Fr Peter Quin, to discuss the service for the second Sunday (I remember asking him what he wanted to do in the service and he said, “Just tell me what you want me to do and I’ll do it.” I remember thinking—that shows how far we’ve moved in 100 years!) I informed him of the baptism of the Japanese baby and he said he was happy to assist in that if the parents agreed—which they did.
On that second Sunday, following the actual baptism, Fr Quin took Jun and lovingly carried him around the church, offering him to people to make the sign of the cross on Jun’s wet head. All I can say is that the Spirit was surely moving—people in the congregation were visibly moved and I was so overcome with emotion that I didn’t think I’d be able to continue with the service. When we talked about it after the service we all came to the conclusion that we had felt the presence of the Holy Spirit so strongly because a Catholic priest carried a Japanese baby around a Uniting (formerly Presbyterian) church! I found out the next day the real reason behind that powerful spiritual experience.
An ecumenical prayer group met monthly in different homes, and the day after the service the group met in the home of one of Fr Quin’s parishioners. We always began by sharing news of what was going on in our various churches and of course I shared the story of the previous day. When I finished, the woman whose home we were in looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked me if I knew what had happened to Fr Quin’s father—Dr Bernard Quin.
When I shook my head, she told us Dr Quin was a GP in Victoria in the late 1920s but drought and the depression had taken his family to the island of Nauru to work there. He loved the people and they him but in the early years of World War 11 the phosphate works on the island were bombed by German ships and the Quin family returned to Australia. The Australian government asked Dr Quin to return to Nauru, as a medical officer was needed to look after the troops stationed there, as well as the local population, so Dr Quin returned to the island.
In 1941, when Japan entered the war, Australia withdrew its troops and Dr Quin and four other Australians had to decide whether to leave with the troops or stay behind. They were desperately needed so they stayed. The Japanese overran the island. In 1943, Dr Quin and the other Australians were beheaded by the Japanese. Dr Quin went to his death wearing his rosary around his neck as a public affirmation of his faith. He was 49 years old. (This story is told in the book Unsung Heroes and Heroines of Australia, pages 264f.)
Now I knew why we had felt the power of the Holy Spirit so strongly the previous day. Fr Peter Quin had carried that Japanese baby around the church with such love that we knew something very special was taking place. When I phoned to say I had heard about his father and commented on the way he had so lovingly held baby Jun, he said “You cannot live on hate. Hate destroys life, forgiveness creates life”.’
TS Eliot wrote beautifully in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘Martyrdom is always the design of God, for his love of men, to warn them and to bring them back to his ways. It is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the will of God, and who no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of being a martyr.’
May we continue to thank God for the life of St Stephen and those outstanding Christian martyrs who, as instruments of God, are utterly selfless in losing their will in his. Unlike some religious extremists seeking martyrdom today, self-glorification could not have been further from their minds. In our beautiful but troubled world, our Christian martyrs remain witnesses to a love that transcends evil. Using those beautiful words of St Paul in his letter to the Philippians, St Stephen and his successors ‘shine in the world like bright stars’ because they ‘offer it the word of life’.