SAINTHOOD BY ACCIDENT?

This homily, based on Matthew 21:33-43, was delivered on 04 October in Gloucester, UK during the Filipino community’s belated celebration of the feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz (29 September).

At first glance, it would seem that our Gospel parable today is perfectly suitable for our belated celebration of the feast of San Lorenzo Ruiz. Our Lord tells the story of a vineyard owner who sends a series of servants to his tenants to collect the rent, but every single one of those hapless servants were killed–one after the other–by those villainous tenants. And when the landowner sent his own son as a last resort, even him the tenants did not hesitate to kill.

It sounds almost like a parable of the life of San Lorenzo Ruiz. For was he not one of many missionaries who traveled to Japan in the 17th century, only to be arrested there, tortured, and martyred for the faith?

Not quite.

A careful reading of his life tells us that our San Lorenzo wasn’t exactly “sent” on that mission. He virtually just hitched a ride on that boat that sailed to Japan. Maybe we should just call him an “accidental saint.” How did that happen?

Born to a Chinese father and a Filipino mother, Lorenzo Ruiz was born and grew up in Binondo in 17th-century Manila. Like a good Catholic mestizo, he served as an altar boy in Binondo Church, and was educated by the Dominicans. He was married to a Filipina, Rosario, and with her he had three children, and he was all set to live a simple, peaceful, and ordinary life until he met an unexpected crisis in his life. While working as a clerk in the church of Binondo, he was falsely accused of murdering a Spaniard.

He asked for help from the Dominican fathers, who probably thought that his was such a hopeless case that they actually advised him to run away from the authorities and board a ship with Dominican missionaries and work with them in Okinawa, Japan. Unfortunately for them, Christianity was at the time prohibited in Japan and Christians were undergoing persecution. Immediately upon their arrival on Japanese shores, their group was arrested and shipped to Nagasaki for trial and torture.

The accounts tell us that the torture they underwent was no joke: While unimaginable pain is inflicted on you, you are all gagged and bound–except for one arm, which has been left free. If you raise that arm at any point during the torture, it signals to those present that you’ve had enough, that you’re ready to give up and denounce your faith. The torture would then immediately stop, and you could just get up and leave. Just like that.

We know the ending: Lorenzo Ruiz never raised his arm and remained faithful to his faith till the very end. His last words, uttered between spasms of pain, are incredibly beautiful: “I am a Catholic and if I had a thousand lives, i would offer them all to God.”

We know this from an eye witness account, which i think tells us that not everyone was killed. At least one person did raise his arm and survived and walked away from sure death. But not our accidental missionary.

Today we ask: What does the life and death of this very first Filipino saint mean for us–an unfortunate man who seemed like a victim of circumstance, finding himself at the wrong place at the wrong time? What could God’s message be for us in our lives as we gather for this celebration? I can think of three things.

First of all, it’s true that Lorenzo Ruiz’s mission work was accidental. He wasn’t even supposed to be there in the first place. He was just running away from the law. The first Filipino saint was actually a fugitive who took flight for Japan. His Japanese mission wasn’t really part of the script, as we would say. But his martyrdom was far from accidental. He chose it. He was exactly in the rght place at the right time!

Many things that happen in our lives are not part of the script. But San Lorenzo shows us: We can always still part of the script. Lorenzo Ruiz could have protested immediately after the arrest that he was not a real or professional missionary. Nothing stopped him from raising his hand to put a stop to his torture. He could have easily denounced his faith and later on just change his mind and be sorry for it. Just joking, Lord! Not counted!

But San Lorenzo realized that God was asking something from him in that situation, to decide and do something special. So from this we learn that even if we don’t have complete control over all the events in our lives, we can still exercise control over the things that count, the things that matter.

Many things may just happen to us without our plan or even against our desire, but what we decide and how we choose to act in those situations will make all the difference. Even when we feel most helpless, we can remain free, and we can exercise our freedom the way Lorenzo remained free even when he was tied up and bound, and the way he used his freedom the way God was asking him to.

Think of an experience or event in your life that was accidental, something that just happened to you that you didn’t choose. You didn’t plan it. You probably didn’t even want it. It may be a situation about your work or your health, or a problem with someone you love. You feel helpless about it. You don’t feel free. What could God be asking of you? How would He want you to exercise your freedom in this situation?

Second: Sometimes to do right thing is to choose the painful thing. Being a good person doesn’t mean all fun and games. Sometimes it feels exactly like martyrdom. I’m not talking about torturing yourself or letting others torture you, of course, but being good is hard work; it entails hard choices. Many of you work in hospitals and nursing homes. It’s so much easier to take short cuts and not give your patients the best possible care they can get. But that’s not the right thing to do. You have to choose not to shortchange them. This becomes especially challenging when you are assigned to take care of difficult patients, when it’s so much easier–and so much more human–to react negatively and treat them as harshly as they treat you. But you choose not to do that and you decide to be caring and patient because that’s the right thing to do–even if it’s harder. Being a good person, making the right choices, can be very similar to martyrdom.

Ask yourself: In your life now, is there a decision that the Lord is inviting you to make, something difficult, something painful, but something right? Can the example of San Lorenzo Ruiz inspire you to finally make that choice?

Finally, we have a saying back home: Ang mga martir binabaril sa Luneta. We can almost hear San Lorenzo add to that: Hindi lamang po sa Luneta. Pati sa Nagasaki at kung saan-saan pa sa mundo!

I think it is no accident that our first Filipino saint, San Lorenzo Ruiz, became a saint when he left our country. And have you noticed that our second Filipino saint, Pedro Calungsod, found sainthood also when he was out of the country, in Guam? They were both OFWs. Maybe there is something about being far from home that summons the saint from within us, opportunities when we are in a foreign land that make us better persons and better Christians. Think about it: When we are new in a place, when we feel like strangers, things feel more out of our control, and we need to depend more on God. Maybe we also face more misunderstanding, more rejection, more persecution, both blatant and subtle. But we also somehow become more courageous and generous in making sacrifices–the stuff of martyrs and saints.

So let that be our special prayers for ourselves, this Filipino community who have left country, family and friends: May you find inspiration in the example of San Lorenzo and through his intercession, find opportunities here every day to make free and right choices, even painful ones, so that you may become better persons, more faithful Christians–in other words, saints not by accident, but by choice.

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5 thoughts on “SAINTHOOD BY ACCIDENT?”

  1. Thank you, Fr. Johnny. I learned a lot about San Lorenzo Ruiz today. His decision to run away brought him into a situation where he was asked to choose God or life. And choosing to live was made easier by the fact that one arm was left unbound. But instead of running away as he did before, he decided to stand and choose God. I can’t even do that in the small insignificant things in life; what more in the big decisions.

  2. As I have heard from Fr J many times before, our God is a God who disturbs us. Though he is constant, He asks us to accept and adapt to the changes in our lives, for this is where we encounter Him. Like San Lorenzo Ruiz, the characters we encounter in the bible experienced acts of leaving, acts that forced them to go out of their comfort zones: Adam and Eve, Noah, Moses, Joseph the dreamer. Even Jesus himself was not exempt from this when He ‘left’ the Trinity at the incarnation, when he ‘left’ at this death, and when he ‘left’ at his ascension.

    The tenants in our gospel today got so used to running the show that they didn’t want to accept someone else telling them what to do anymore. In the end, they only brought ruin on themselves.

    Today’s reflection reminds me that despite my aversion to change, I should learn to ‘leave’ what I’ve been accustomed to to be able to tackle new experiences. And as we’ve seen before, no matter where we end up, God will always be there.

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