By Bishop Tim Norton
A few weeks ago, we celebrated the Feast Day of St Mary of the Cross.
Mary MacKillop lived an intriguing missionary life different to the notion that many of us have about mission.
Sometimes we think about mission as a way of donating time and resources to people who are grateful for the contribution.
We see that in the photos of smiling and happy faces overseas where people have been helped by missionaries.
But it’s not always like that.
There are people who aren’t happy about their contact with Catholic missionaries, or at least not particularly grateful for it, yet they are no less deserving of time and resources.
The God that dwells in everyone is often unavailable to us because sometimes God does not appear to us in ways that make us feel good.
I go back to time I spent in Sydney in the early 1990s, weeks after I was ordained as a priest.
I was living in a house with a religious sister and three young lay women, providing accommodation and relationship for people living on the street.
On Good Friday morning, we were sitting in a coffee shop on George St in Sydney, having just celebrated the Via Crucis in the street, and preparing for the Easter vigil, when we heard a commotion.
Car horns were honking. People were shouting.
We went for a closer look and saw someone we knew. George was a drug dealer who had visited our house with other street people looking to peddle his wares. George had been violent at times and was banned from that house.
On this morning, he was wearing only red underpants and staggering across the busy street, clearly under the influence of the drugs he was usually selling to others.
My four female housemates left the coffee shop and followed George. I paid for the coffee and followed them.
George was near some prostitutes who had felt his violent hand. Because he could not fight back, they were laughing at him and calling him names.
George then staggered into a tattoo parlour.
The women followed George there despite me urging them not to go near the place.
These four women, including a Presentation Sister named Ann, took George out of the tattoo parlour and marched him back to his place. They knew where he lived and, when they arrived, the door was open.
They lay him down in his bed, made sure he was comfortable, and then they left. It was time for George to sleep off the effects of the substances that he had consumed.
A week later, the events of that day dawned on me.
It had been Good Friday. There was an unpopular man, naked and being laughed at and jeered. Yet some people stood by him.
Does that sound familiar?
I went to tell my four housemates, including Sr Ann, my wonderful insight.
They just nodded at me. Despite George’s violence, they had seen the face of Jesus on the day it happened. They didn’t have to wait a week like me.
I had completely missed it.
I missed that moment of encounter with Jesus in the form of troubled George.
My spiritual director helped me understand that mine was a moment of secondary grace – realising it after the event.
While I missed it initially, the realisation gave me the fuel to continue the fire of mission.
Mission isn’t always about a story that ends with a smiling face and a postcard moment.
It’s about an encounter with God. And God is there in all.
St Ignatius talked about the God of everything. The God that is all around us.
The God there in the people with mental health issues. The God there in their families who are trying to cope. The God there in those willing to help them.
Mary MacKillop knew first-hand about such encounters with God.
She had some difficult times yet she never doubted that God was present.
That’s the great gift we get when we realise these encounters with God.
People may not always have the smiling faces but they are moments of grace and moments of encounter.
They are to be treasured.