Saint Francis of Assisi once had a great fear and abhorrence of lepers. He confessed that the sight of a leper was so repugnant to him that he refused to even approach their dwellings. If he chanced to glimpse one in his travels or pass by the leprosarium, he turned his head away and blocked his nose.
As he became more serious about his faith and took on Christ’s admonition to love others as you love yourself, he became ashamed of this attitude. So one day when a man afflicted with leprosy crossed his path, he overcame his feelings of horror and disgust and, instead of turning away, leaped off his horse, kissed the leper and pressed money into his hand.
But when Francis remounted and looked back, he could not find the leper anywhere. With dawning excitement, he realized that it was Jesus whom he had kissed. After gathering some funds, he went to the leper hospital and gave alms to each one, kissing their hands with reverence as he did so. What had formerly seemed distasteful to him—the sight or touch of a leper—was transformed into sweetness. Later Francis wrote, “When I was in sin, the sight of lepers nauseated me beyond measure; but then God Himself led me into their company, and I had pity on them. When I became acquainted with them, what had previously nauseated me became the source of spiritual and physical consolation for me.”
Today, we often see people around us who are stricken with spiritual leprosy. Mostly we try to keep away from them, but we fail to realize that it has crept into our own hearts as well. So instead of judging and pointing fingers at others, let’s cleanse ourselves off the crippling mind and hardness of heart. In the first place, God bestowed His grace and mercy upon us though we are broken and wounded. Let’s reach out to others with this mercy and compassion which we received unconditionally.
In the interiors of Nigeria, sans adequate resources or assistance, this priest witnessed unbelievable supernatural interventions He was no stranger to fights. 6’2 with a black belt in kickboxing, he had a very colorful past before becoming a Catholic priest. But sensing divine direction, when he took on the assignment as the Superior of the Somascans in Usen, Nigeria, Reverend Varghese Parakudiyil got into what he calls the ‘ultimate brawl’—a direct war between good and evil in everyday life. He had indeed moved into the hotbed for Juju, i.e., African witchcraft. The local witch doctors were highly regarded throughout the continent for their ‘powers.’ Among their clients were many prominent figures, including important political figures and even some local Christians. But, “where sin abounds, grace abounds still more” (Romans 5:20), and Reverend Varghese surely experienced the power of God like never before. The very mention of the name of Jesus freed the afflicted from evil spirits; there was divine protection for Christians which the combined curses of the witch doctors could not penetrate, and many other powerful displays of divine power. But one incident of supernatural intervention stands apart. All that I Have It was in October 2012, just a few weeks after Father Varghese had moved to Usen from India. One day a lady walked up to him, and after greeting him, she lifted up the portion of her dress over her stomach. To his horror, she removed a patch of black plastic sheet stuck on her stomach and uncovered a hole as big as an orange next to her belly button. The hernia operation needed to heal her would take 400,000 nairas, something she could not afford: “Can you help?” she asked. The Reverend recalls that he was really broke, so he told her that he was not in a position to assist her. But, more as an act of dismissal, he encouraged her to get the operation done somehow... As she slowly walked away, Reverend Varghese felt like seeing his own mother (who had passed away recently) leaving. Helpless and with a heavy heart, he whispered one of his sincerest prayers for her. The Supernatural Clone The Sunday before the New Year, a lady accompanied by her two daughters came up to the priest’s dwelling, carting a big bunch of bananas and a bag full of fruits and vegetables. Kneeling, she rubbed her palms together—a gesture that expressed either extreme gratitude or apology—and offered him the bananas and the bag. The priest was puzzled; though she looked strangely familiar, he couldn’t recognize her. “Don’t you remember me, Father?” she asked. As she uncovered her stomach, he realized that it was the same lady who had come to him for help before. Now, she looked totally healed, obviously through an operation, because the suture marks were still visible. When she thanked him, the priest was at a loss, unable to understand what he had done to warrant that gratitude. “Because you paid the bill,” said the confused lady. Totally baffled by her comment, he asked her to elucidate. Following their fateful meeting, the lady had apparently got herself admitted to a hospital in Benin City for the hernia operation and hoped to be back home in time for Christmas and New Year celebrations. When she told the hospital staff that she would pay after the surgery, for some strange reason, they consented. Once the surgery was completed and she was taken back to her room, she told them she would go back home and sell her land to pay the bill. Understandably, they would not let her leave without paying. The next logical step would have been to hand her over to the police. But a little later, a nurse came into her room waving her bill and told her, “Praise the Lord, your parish priest just came and paid your bill. You can go now,” she added: “the Oyibo (as non-African foreigners are called), the tall one.” Unexplained Mysteries For Reverend Varghese, it was a wallop like nothing before! There were no other ‘Oyibo’ priests in the Benin City diocese at that time. “It wasn’t me,” says Father Varghese, “If it was some other priest who paid the bill, praise God. But I believe that it was my guardian angel who did it.” He is still unsure what gave the woman the nerve to get operated on without the money. Did she think that somehow the priest would manage to pay her bill? Or did she feel that being jailed was a better option than the suffering she was undergoing? Humbled by these and many other experiences that convinced him of the Lord’s enduring providence, Reverend Varghese continues his ministry with zeal. He is presently handling dual roles as Superior at the Somascan mother house in Italy and as the Director of the International Novitiate. “Definitely not as action-packed as Africa or India, but this is God’s assignment for me now,” he humbly remarks.
From being a faithful Muslim praying to Allah three times a day, fasting, almsgiving, and doing Namaz, to being baptized in the Pope’s Private Chapel, Munira’s journey has twists and turns that might surprise you! My image of Allah was of a stern master who would punish my slightest error. If I wanted anything, I had to buy Allah’s favor with fasting and prayer. I always had this fear that if I were to do anything wrong, I would be punished. The First Seed A cousin of mine had a near-death experience, and he told me that he experienced a vision of plunging through a dark tunnel, at the end of which he saw a bright light and two people standing there—Jesus and Mary. I was confused; shouldn’t he have seen the prophet Mohammed or Imam Ali? Since he felt so sure that it was Jesus and Mary, we asked our imam for an explanation. He replied that Isa (Jesus) is also a great prophet, so when we die, he comes to escort our souls. His answer didn’t satisfy me, but it began my search for the truth about Jesus. The Search Despite having lots of Christian friends, I didn’t know where to start. They invited me to a Novena to Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, and I started attending the novenas regularly, listening carefully to the homilies explaining the word of God. Although I didn’t understand much, I believe that it was Mary who understood and eventually led me to the truth. In a series of dreams through which the Lord would speak to me over the years, I saw a finger pointing out a man dressed as a shepherd while a voice called me by name, saying, “Munira, follow Him.” I knew the shepherd was Jesus, so I asked who was speaking. He replied: “He and I are one.” I wanted to follow Him, but I didn’t know how. Do You Believe in Angels? We had a friend whose daughter seemed to be possessed. They were so desperate that they even asked me for a solution. As a Muslim, I told her that we have these Babas they could go to. Two months later, I was astounded when I saw her again. Instead of a thin, puny ghost of a figure I had seen earlier, she had become a healthy, radiant, robust teenager. They told me that a priest, Father Rufus, had delivered her in the name of Jesus. After several refusals, when we finally accepted their invitation to join them at Mass with Father Rufus, he prayed over me and asked me to read a verse from the Bible; I felt such peace that there was no turning back. He spoke about The Man on the Cross—who died for Muslims, Hindus, and all mankind throughout the world. It awakened a deep desire to know more about Jesus, and I felt that God had sent him in answer to my prayer to know the Truth. When I came home, I opened the Bible for the first time and started reading it with interest. Father Rufus advised me to seek out a prayer group, but I didn’t know how, so I started praying to Jesus on my own. At one point, I was alternately reading the Bible and the Quran, and I asked Him: “Lord, what is the Truth? If you are the Truth, then give me the desire to only read the Bible.” From then on, I was led to open only the Bible. When a friend invited me to a prayer group, I initially said no, but she insisted, and the third time, I had to give in. The second time I went, I took my sister along. It turned out to be life-changing for both of us. When the preacher spoke, he said that he’d received a message, “There are two sisters here who have come searching for the Truth. Now their search has ended.” As we attended the weekly prayer meetings, I slowly started to understand The Word, and I realized that I had to do two things—forgive and repent. My family was intrigued when they noticed a visible change in me, so they started coming too. When my dad learned about the importance of the Rosary, he surprisingly suggested that we start praying it together at home. From then on, we, a Muslim family, would kneel down and pray the Rosary every day. No End to Wonders My growing love for Jesus prompted me to join a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Before we went, a voice in a dream told me that although I held fear and anger deep within me, it would soon be released. When I shared this dream with my sister, wondering what it could all mean, she advised me to ask the Holy Spirit. I was puzzled because I didn’t really know who the Holy Spirit was. That would soon change in an amazing way. When we visited the Church of Saint Peter (where he had that dream showing him all the animals that God now permitted them to eat (Acts 10:11-16)), the Church doors were closed because we were late. Father Rufus rang the bell, but nobody answered. After about 20 minutes, he said, “Let us just pray outside the Church,” but I suddenly felt a voice within me saying: “Munira, you go ring the bell.” With the permission of Father Rufus, I rang the bell. Within seconds, those huge doors opened. The priest had been sitting right beside them, but he only heard the bell when I rang it. Father Rufus exclaimed: “The Gentiles will receive the Holy Spirit.” I was the Gentile! In Jerusalem, we visited the Upper Room where the Last Supper and the Descent of the Holy Spirit had taken place. As we were praising God, we heard a roar of thunder, a wind blew into the room, and I was blessed with the gift of tongues. I couldn’t believe it! He baptized me in the Holy Spirit in the same place where Mother Mary and the apostles received the Holy Spirit. Even our Jewish tour guide was astonished. He fell to his knees and prayed with us. The Sprout Keeps Growing When I returned home, I was longing to be baptized, but my mom said: “See Munira, we follow Jesus, we believe in Jesus, we love Jesus, but conversion...I don’t think we should do it. You know there will be many repercussions from our community.” But there was a deep desire within me to receive the Lord, especially after a dream in which He asked me to attend the Eucharist every day. I remember imploring the Lord like the Canaanite woman: “You fed her the crumbs from Your table, treat me like her and make it possible for me to attend the Eucharist.” Shortly afterward, while I was walking with my dad, we unexpectedly arrived at a church where the Eucharistic celebration was just beginning. After attending the Mass, my dad said: “Let us come here every day.” I feel that my road to baptism started there. The Unexpected Gift My sister and I decided to join the prayer group on a trip to Rome and Medjugorje. Sister Hazel, who was organizing it, casually asked me if I would like to get baptized in Rome. I wanted a quiet baptism, but the Lord had other plans. She spoke to the Bishop, who got us a five-minute appointment with a Cardinal that lasted two and a half hours; the Cardinal said he would take care of all arrangements to be baptized in Rome. So we were baptized in the Pope’s Private Chapel by the Cardinal. I took on the name Fatima and my sister took on the name Maria. We joyfully celebrated our baptismal lunch with many cardinals, priests, and religious over there. I just felt that right through it all, the Lord was telling us: “O taste and see that the Lord is good; happy are those who take refuge in him” (Psalm 34:8). Soon came the Cross of Calvary. Our family experienced a financial crisis that people in our community blamed on our conversion to Christianity. Astonishingly, the rest of my family went the other way. Instead of turning their backs on us and our faith, they also asked for baptism. Amid adversity and opposition, they found strength and courage, and hope in Jesus. Dad expressed it well, “There is no Christianity without a Cross.” Today, we continue to encourage each other in our faith and share it with others whenever we have the opportunity. When I was speaking to my aunt about my conversion experience, she asked me why I addressed God as “Father.” God, for her, is Allah. I told her that I call Him Father because He has invited me to be His beloved child. I rejoice to have a loving relationship with Him Who loves me so much that He sent His Son to wash me clean from all my sins and reveal the promise of eternal life. After I shared my remarkable experiences, I asked her if she would still follow Allah if she were in my place. She had no answer.
Blessings were abundant: friends, family, money, vacations—you name it, I had it all. So how did it all go so wrong? I didn't really have a wonderful storybook childhood—tell me someone who has—but I wouldn't say it was terrible. There was always food on the table, clothes on my back, and a roof over my head, but we struggled. I don't just mean we struggled financially, which we definitely did, but I mean we struggled to find our way as a family. My parents were divorced by the time I was six, and my father turned to heavier drinking than ever before. Meanwhile, my mother found men who were into the same drugs and habits as she was. Though we had a rough start, it didn't stay that way. Eventually, against all statistical odds, both of my parents and my now stepfather, by the grace of God, got sober and have stayed that way. Relationships were rebuilt, and the sun began to rise in our lives again. A few years went by, and there came a point when I realized that I had to do something productive and different in my life so that I could avoid all of the pitfalls of my childhood. I buckled down and went back to school. I got my barber’s license and worked myself into a nice career. I made plenty of money and met the woman of my dreams. The opportunity eventually arose, and I started a second career in law enforcement in addition to cutting hair. Everyone liked me, I had friends in very high places, and it looked as if the sky was the limit. So how'd I end up in prison? Unbelievably True Wait a minute, this isn't my life…this can't be real…HOW IS THIS HAPPENING TO ME?! You see, despite everything I had, I was missing something. The worst part of it was that I knew all along exactly what that something was, and I ignored it. It's not like I didn't ever try, but I just couldn't give God my everything. Instead, I lost it all…or did I? This is how it is: Whatever sin you're holding onto will eventually work its roots deep down into the core of your soul and choke you out until you can't breathe anymore. Even seemingly insignificant sins demand more of you, little by little, until your life is upside down, and you're so disoriented that you don't know which way is up. That's how it started for me. I began giving in to my lustful thoughts somewhere around middle school. By the time I was in college, I was a full-fledged womanizer. When I did finally meet the woman of my dreams, there was no way I could ever do what was right anymore. How could someone like me be faithful? But that's not all. For a while, I tried to go to Mass and do all the right things. I went to confession regularly and joined clubs and committees, but I always kept just a little bit of my old sins for myself. It's not necessarily that I wanted to, but I was so attached, and I was afraid to let go. Time went on, and I slowly stopped going to Mass. My old sinful ways began to fester and creep back into the forefront of my life. Time moved fast, and pleasures swirled all around me as I threw caution to the wind. I was high on life. On top of it all, I was very successful and admired by many. Then it all came crashing down. I made some terrible choices that left me serving a 30-year prison sentence. More importantly, I left behind people who loved and cared for me with a lifetime of pain. You see, sin has a way of convincing you to go further than you've gone and making you more depraved than you once were. Your moral compass becomes confused. Worse things seem more exciting, and the old sins don't cut it anymore. Before you know it, you've become someone you don't even recognize. Fast forward to the present day... I live in an 11x9 ft. cell, and I spend twenty-two hours a day locked inside of it. There is chaos all around me. This is not how I imagined my life would turn out. But, I found God within these walls. I have spent the last few years here in prison praying and seeking the help I needed. I have been studying Scripture and taking lots of classes. I've also been sharing the message of God's mercy and peace with all the other inmates who will listen to me. It took an extreme wake-up call before I finally surrendered to God, but now that I have, my life has been totally different. I wake up every morning thankful to be alive. I am grateful every day for the shower of blessings that I receive despite my incarceration. For the first time in my life, I experienced peace in my soul. It took me losing my physical liberty to find my spiritual freedom. You don't have to go to prison to find and accept God's peace. He will meet you wherever you are, but let me warn you—if you hold anything back from Him, you may very well end up being my neighbor in prison. If you recognize yourself in this story, please don't wait to seek professional help and guidance, starting from, but not limited to, your local parish priest. There is no shame in admitting you have a problem, and there is no better time than NOW to get help. If you're in prison and you're reading this, I want you to know that it's not too late for you. God loves you. He can forgive whatever it is you've done. Jesus Christ shed His precious blood to forgive all of us who come to Him with our pain and our brokenness. You can start right now, this very moment, by recognizing that you are powerless without Him. Cry out to Him with the words of the tax collector: "O God, be merciful to me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). I leave you with this: "What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" (Matthew. 16:26)
Are there doors in your life that refuse to open, no matter your efforts? Know the secret behind those closed doors through this heartfelt experience. Opening the door to the Cathedral of Saint Jude, my husband and I found our seats amidst a large crowd gathered for the funeral of a woman I had met long ago when I was only 20 years old. She and her husband were the pastoral leaders of a Catholic Charismatic Prayer Community at the time. While she and I had not been close personal friends, she had touched my life in significant ways when I was involved with this dynamic faith-filled group. Her middle son, Ken, was now Father Ken, and that day was also the 25th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. Scanning the congregation revealed many familiar faces from both my past and present. Father Ken’s touching tribute to his mother and the loving eulogies by his siblings reflected the impact the prayer group had on their own family, as well as many in attendance that day. Their words prompted memories to course through my mind—of how the Holy Spirit used this community to change many lives, especially mine. Dragged into Love I had been raised by two very devout Catholic parents who attended Mass daily, but as a teen, I only grudgingly participated in the life of the Church. I felt resentful of my father’s insistence on family Rosary every night and saying grace not just before meals but after as well. Attending the Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament on a Friday night at 10 PM didn’t bode well for my social status as a 15-year-old, especially when my friends asked what I had done over the weekend. Being a Catholic, for me then, was just about plenty of rules, requirements, and rituals. My experience each week was not one of joy or fellowship with other believers but rather one of duty. Still, when my sister invited me to join her at her college’s weekend retreat the fall after I graduated from high school, I agreed. My small town offered little in the way of new experiences, and this would definitely be out of the norm for me. As it turned out, this retreat would set the trajectory for the rest of my life! Between the warm camaraderie of the participants, as well as the huge smile that covered Father Bill’s face when he shared about the Lord with us, I saw something I had never seen in my home parish, and I knew that was what I truly wanted in my life: JOY! Near the end of the weekend, during the quiet time outdoors, I offered my life to God, not knowing exactly what that really meant. Hopeless Cases Less than two years later, my sister and I moved from the east coast of Florida to the west, first due to her job and later, because of my acceptance to a college in Saint Petersburg. Our efforts to find a place to live within our means were thwarted time and again due to the unwillingness of numerous apartment managers to rent a one-bedroom unit to two girls—even though we had shared a bedroom our whole lives and were sisters! Discouraged after yet another refusal, we stopped at the Cathedral of Saint Jude to pray. Knowing nothing about this Saint, we spied a prayer card and discovered that Saint Jude was the ‘patron of hopeless cases.’ After a bumpy search for affordable housing, our futile situation seemed to qualify as a hopeless case, so we knelt down to invoke Saint Jude’s intercession. Lo and behold, after arriving at the next apartment complex on our list, we were again greeted with the same hesitance. However, this time, the older woman looked at me, paused, and said, “You remind me of my granddaughter. I don’t rent one-bedrooms to two women, but...I like you, and I’m going to make an exception!” We came to find out that the nearest Catholic Church to our new home was the Holy Cross, where a group called 'Presence of God Prayer Community' met each Tuesday night. Had we been able to rent any other apartment, we would not have been led to this group of joy-filled people we soon came to call 'family!' It was clear that the Holy Spirit was at work, and His presence was revealed time and time again in the 17 years I was actively involved in the group. Completing the Circle Returning to Saint Jude’s, the celebration of life that day was not only of our long-ago pastoral leaders, but it was also very much my own! Remembering my brokenness as a young adult and the loneliness and insecurity I felt at that time, I marveled at how the Lord had changed my life. He used His Spirit and His people to heal me emotionally and spiritually, filling my life with deep and rich friendships that have stood the test of time. He helped me discover the gifts He had given me—the community offered me a place to serve in various ways until I realized that my natural abilities, like that of organization, could be used for spiritual purposes. After several years, I was invited onto a new Pastoral Team whose dynamic leader mentored me by example. Through his encouragement and support, I developed leadership skills that resulted in beginning new ministries to serve the 'household of faith' in the prayer community and the 'least of these' outside the doors of the church. When a new parish began nearby some years later, I was asked to join the music ministry there, and with the Spirit’s prompting, I also participated in various other ministries. Bringing in all that I had learned and experienced over the years, I was able to set up many events that offered opportunities for healing, conversion, and growth within our parish community. For the last 14 years, I have been blessed to organize a women’s fellowship group begun by myself and a friend, who, like me, was changed by the love and care of Christian communities. I have found all of God’s promises in the Scriptures to be true. He is faithful, forgiving, kind, compassionate, and a source of joy deeper than any I have ever thought possible! He has provided meaning and purpose in my life, and with His grace and direction, I have been able to partner with Jesus in ministry for over 40 years now. I didn’t have to 'wander in the desert' for those years, as did the Israelites. The same God Who led His people by the “pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night” (Exodus 13:22) has led me day by day, year by year, revealing His plans for me along the way. A song from my prayer group days lilts through my mind, “Oh how good, how wonderful it is when brothers and sisters live as one!” (Psalm 133:1). Looking around that day, I saw clear evidence of that. The Spirit at work in Father Ken’s mother brought much fruit from the seeds she planted, both in her home and in our community of faith. That same Spirit then brought forth a harvest from the seeds planted and watered in my life over the years. The Apostle Paul said it best in his letter to Ephesians: “Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, forever and ever. Amen!” (3:20-21)
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