Given on 25 January 2015 at St Joan of Arc Church, Highbury, marking the 50th anniversary of the martyrdom of Blessed Marie-Clementine Anuarite Nengapeta.
I am so pleased to be part of your celebration today: A celebration of faith, of joy, of your Catholic and Congolese identity. Today you praise God for the gift of life, for the gifts of your families and for the shining example, from within your nation, of the wonderful Blessed Marie-Clementine Anuarite.
You will know her story. It is a story that tells us of the struggle between good and evil. That same struggle marks the life of every one of us and so the story has its echo in our lives too. Indeed, the pattern of this story is found throughout the history of the Church, in every land, in every place. But today we rejoice in this story which comes to us from your land, your people and with it brings us encouragement and joy.
It starts in a generous family life. Anuarite was born in 1939, the youngest of six daughters. But, as with many families, there was trouble as well as joy. Her father wanted a son and so he dismissed his wife in order to take another. Even though they were not Christians, Anuarite’s mother baptised her at birth, bringing to her, through God’s loving providence, the gift of the Holy Spirit, a gift that was to bear much fruit in her later life.
Now, in her town, Wamba, the school was run by the Sisters of the Holy Family. Anuarite was inspired by them, for in her heart was a love similar to that which she saw in the Sisters: kindness, readiness to help, especially those most in need. So she wanted to join the Sisters, but her mother would not agree.
Then, in 1959, she took an opportunity to evade her family and go to Bafwabaka and join the convent there. In that same year she took her vows, on 5 August, and became Sister Marie-Clementine of the Sisters of the Holy Family. Her parents accepted this and went to the ceremony, taking two goats as presents for the nuns to show how proud they were that their daughter was consecrating herself to God. Sister Marie-Clementine grew in her religious life through serving others, making everyone happy and always insisting on the virtues of purity and chastity.
As you well know, life in your country has never been easy, with much violence between people, the terrible slave trade and a dreadful series of civil wars across the region, even into living memory. Among them was the Mulele rebellion of 1964 which engulfed the Sisters of the Holy Family in Bafwabaka. One day the Simba rebels arrived and took away all 46 nuns in a truck. They were taken to Isiro and put in the charge of a colonel of the rebel army and separated, two, including Sister Marie-Clementine, being kept behind because another colonel had decided he wanted her to be his wife.
Sister Marie-Clementine refused and in his frustration this colonel asked the help of another colonel, Colonel Olombe. He wanted her for himself and was the one who, in a fit of frustration and rage, attacked Sister Marie-Clementine, who kept insisting that she would die rather than give in to his desire to sin. What we know for certain is that in the course of being beaten, Sister Marie-Clementine , Anuarite, kept saying: ‘I forgive you, for your know not what you are doing.’ The very words of Jesus himself!
Then, in a new fit of rage Olombe called some Simbas over and ordered them to stab Anuarite with their bayonets. When they had done so, he then took out his revolver and shot her in the chest.
Then he calmed down and allowed the Sisters to come back and take her away. She was still breathing feebly when they did so and she lingered on for a few more minutes before dying at about one o’clock in the morning of 1 December 1964.
Of course the story does not end there. Colonel Olombe then freed the other Sisters. Eight months later they returned to recover the body of Sister Marie-Clementine from the common grave and bury it near to the Cathedral in Isiro. After the rebellion, Colonel Olombe was arrested for his part in the rebellion and eventually served a five-year prison sentence. He lost everything. When he was released he had nowhere to go. So he went back to the Sisters, asking for their help. They received him mercifully and gave him what he needed. Sister Leontine said: ‘Sister Marie-Clementine forgave you; we must follow her example.’
This is a wonderful story of love, suffering, forgiveness and faithfulness in the face of such anger and evil. It is a story to thrill our hearts and give us so much encouragement. Her actions become a light in our eyes, teaching us by example how we are to treat each other, forgive each other, never hold grudges against each other, resist anger with patience and love, continue to be generous even when we are not thanked or appreciated. Only in these ways can we too express in our lives the same love of God that your Blessed Anuarite, your Blessed Marie-Clementine, showed in her life.
Now, come with me to Kinshasa for the day of the Beatification of Sister Marie-Clementine, 15 August 1985. The ceremony is being conducted by Pope John Paul II, now a much loved Saint of the Church. There are over 60,000 people present. To the Pope’s left are sitting the aged parents of Anuarite – her mother who opposed her entry into religious life; her father who deserted his family and took up with a second wife. Now they see how gracious the Lord truly is and how the working of His Holy Spirit, in the life of their little girl, has overcome all their own shortcomings and failings. How their hearts must have filled with pride.
But that is not all. Lost in the crowd, present more or less as a beggar, certainly a very poor man, is the former Colonel Olombe. Not only had he received the forgiveness of the woman he killed, not only had he received the forgiveness of her community, but he himself had asked for forgiveness for his terrible action. Imagine how he must have felt when he heard for himself Pope John Paul say these words: ‘I too forgive her killer, with all my heart. In the name of the entire Church, I forgive him.’ What a moment that was!
Today we hear the Lord say to us all: ‘Repent and believe the Gospel.’ Often we also hear, from Pope Francis, that the gift of mercy lies at the centre of the Gospel which Jesus brings to us. This Congolese woman embodies that Gospel. She inspires us.
So we must understand: the Gospel is the promise of life in its fullness coming to us in Jesus. Through him and with him and in him we can overcome all evil, all adversity and be brought into the loving presence of our heavenly Father. In order to receive that Gospel, we have to turn to him, we have to let go of our old ways, we must repent, turn, start again. This is his invitation, day by day, that each day we turn again, repent of our foolishness, whether small or great, and enter into his arms afresh. For he is the only one who can give us this gift of true life, life in its fullness, in joy and peace.
No wonder you are proud of Blessed Marie-Clementine! No wonder I am glad to learn about her from you. She understood. She loved the Lord, day by day. She turned evil into good, anger and violence into a longing for mercy. She taught her sisters not to be bitter at life’s cruelties but to be generous in mercy. And she teaches us the same lessons!
May God bless the people of the Congo, all the people of the nations of the Congo. May God raise up among you new saints who can inspire us all. May each of us here today strive to show in our lives the same desire to be dedicated to the Lord as the young Anuarite showed; the same dedication to daily kindness as she showed as Sister Marie-Clementine and the same faithfulness to the end as she showed in those dreadful moments of her death. May the Lord bless us all on this day of celebration. Amen.