Who are the Mother Teresa of Calcuttas of our time? Who are the witnesses of charity and unconditional love for others, particularly for the most needy?
In this year, 2017, as in the last two millennia, men and women of different Christian confessions have given their lives unto death for others, or have dedicated themselves to spreading God’s love with their selfless daily giving to the most needy.
Below, we present 10 cases of witnesses of charity who have lived, or are living, Jesus’ words in depth: “No one has greater love than he who gives his life for his friends” (John 15:13).
1) Ignacio Echeverría, the “skateboard hero” of the London attacks
The world remembers him as the “skateboard hero,” since Ignacio Ecchevaría, a 39-year-old bank employee, did not hesitate to confront one of the terrorists of the June 3, 2017 London Bridge attack, using one of the passions of his athletic life: a skateboard.
He could have continued on his way on his bicycle and fled like so many other people, but he got off to confront the killer, saving the lives of several people who managed to escape. He was mortally wounded when two other terrorists stabbed him in the back.
Ignacio, who had a law degree, was a member of Catholic Action and a great athlete (in addition to skateboarding, he loved surfing, golf, and squash). He had left his native Spain to work as an analyst at HSBC, where he worked to prevent money laundering. Some people have asked the Church to look into the possibility of his beatification.
2) Gaetano Nicosia, the “angel of the lepers” in China
Father Gaetano Nicosia, a Salesian missionary, reached Macao in 1963 to care for about 100 lepers who had taken refuge on the island of Coloane. Abandoned to their fate, they were in dire straits, afflicted with terrible hygiene, violence, and suicides.
Father Nicosia, born in Italy in 1915, already spoke Chinese, since had begun his missionary work among Chinese communities in 1935, in Hong Kong, Macao, and in the Chinese province of Guangdong until the Communists expelled him from mainland China in 1950. When the bishop of Macau asked the Salesians for help to care for the lepers of Coloane, Father Nicosia went to live with them, as St. Damian of Molokai had done. From 1963 to 2011, for 48 years, he shared his life with the lepers, transforming that place.
He brought nurses and doctors to the island, helped bring in healthy and varied food, restored houses by bringing electricity and potable water, created a farm and offered professional training so that each leper could have a job, and he built a school and a church.
In 2011, when he was already very old and he left the mission, there were no more people on the island with Hansen’s disease. The priest’s witness of life led most of the members of his community to embrace the Christian faith. Father Nicosia died in Hong Kong on November 6, at the age of 102.
3) Sudha Varghese, liberator of the “untouchables” of India
In India, she is known as “Nari Gunjan” or “the voice of the women.” We are talking about Sister Sudha Varghese, a religious of the Sisters of Notre Dame. Her work has allowed her to liberate the Musher, “dalits” (untouchables) of Bihar State, especially the women, from sexual abuse and other offenses.
Before the sister arrived in the 1980s, the Musher were known for eating rats. They had no properties of their own, they cleaned bathrooms and worked in the distilleries. Their women and children were frequently sexually abused in the houses of the dominant classes. They had no opportunity to go to school. Girls were often given in marriage at the age of 10.
Sister Sudha Varghese, born in 1949 to a wealthy family from Kerala, broke that vicious cycle by creating a network of formation centers for Musher girls, many of them single mothers. She has received many death threats for her work.
The sister, who has lived like just another dalit for more than two decades, complemented her charitable work with the Joyful Learning Centres, which are educational centers for children that give a future to the “pariahs,” even coming to create great cricket teams.
4) Marta Mya Thwe, the “Mother Teresa of Burma”
Everyone knows her as the “Mother Teresa of Burma” or Myanmar, but her real name is Marta Mya Thwe. She is a religious sister from the Congregation of St. Joseph of the Apparition, and she has dedicated her life to AIDS victims in her country.
Over the past three decades, her work in the state of Mon has radically changed the life expectancy of AIDS victims, who did not receive proper care and suffered expulsion from their own families and from society. In 2002, she founded the health center “Mirror of Charity,” which offers a place to stay, food, medicines, education, and professional formation to orphans and AIDS victims. Now those centers are extending throughout the country: AIDS victims are no longer despised untouchables, but people with a virus who have dignity and a promising future.
5) Henri Burin des Roziers, lawyer for the “landless” in Brazil
A lawyer for the “landless” in Brazil. That is how people described the French Dominican priest Henri Burin des Roziers, who passed away on November 26, 2017, in Paris. After intense work assisting students and North African immigrants in France, he arrived in Brazil in 1978 to put himself at the service of the Pastoral Commission of the Land, created two years previously by Brazilian Episcopal Conference to help the many land workers who suffered injustices. Along with other Dominicans, “Frei Henri,” as he was known in Brazil, became a lawyer for field workers who were unjustly imprisoned or even tortured, as well as for the families of murdered field workers.
In 2000, his action at the Pastoral Commission of the Land led for the first time to the sentencing in the state of Para of a “fazendeiro” (landowner) for the murder of a union leader. Some fazendeiros reacted by putting a price on the priest’s head.
In 2005, the death threats became even more terrible. That year, the American missionary Sr. Dorothy Stang (73 years old), who shared in Father Henri’s work to help the field workers, was murdered. The price on his head at that time was 50,000 reales (today, about $15,000 USD).
6) Christopher Hartley, water for Ethiopia
This Christmas, he made the most eloquent call to the West: from Gode, in the southeast of Ethiopia, in the desert, close to the border with Somalia, he begged for water for his town, which is dying of thirst.
Father Christopher Hartley, born in 1959 in London in an Anglo-Spanish family, worked for years with Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He has fought for a decade for the health, life expectancy, and restoration of dignity of thousands of people, most of them Muslims, in lands that had never before seen a Christian missionary.
Upon seeing day by day how the people were dying of infections, Father Christopher launched a project that will help solve the long-term problem: creating a water filtering system for the Wabi Shebelle river in the Gode region and making it available to the people. This project, praised by European engineers, will save the lives of tens of thousands of people.
The priest, who is literally giving water to drink to these people from the second most populated African nation, admits that in his heart he daily hears Jesus’ words to the apostles: “Give them something to eat yourselves!” And above all, he hears the Lord when he said, “I was thirsty, and you gave me to drink.”
7) Rafaela Wlodarczak, mother of orphans of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict
What could a young Polish woman do for the Palestinian orphans of the Six-Day War between Israel and the Arab countries? Sister Rafaela Wlodarczak, a religious sister from the Congregation of Saint Elizabeth, did not hide behind her fragility: she rolled up the sleeves of her habit and in 1968 built, with her own hands and with the help of other religious sisters, the “House of Peace” on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. The house was soon too small for all of the needs, and then another “House of Peace” was created for needy children in the city of Bethlehem.
This December 8, the “House of Peace” has celebrated the 50 years of life in which the religious sisters’ work has not only given shelter and help to the neediest children in Palestine, but above all, what they will need for their future: education in respect for others, in peace. For this reason, last June, Pope Francis gave the Polish Sister Rafaela Wlodarczak the “Pro Ecclesia et Pontifice” cross.
8) Rosemary Nyirumbe, a future for child soldiers in Uganda
CNN called her the “Hero of the Year” in the past, since she gave a future to more than 2,000 women, victims of abuse and violence of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) in Uganda.
Everything started 16 years ago. Rosemary Nyirumbe, a religious with the Sisters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, realized that in the school she directed in Gulu, there were some of the girls who had been enslaved by the LRA, one of the most dangerous terrorist groups in the world. Some told her that their abusers had forced them to kill members of their own family. Victims of the worst atrocities, their lives seemed destroyed forever.
Sister Rosemary did not ask them any more questions. She opened the doors of her convent to them. Soon other women began to knock at the door: some were pregnant after having been raped, others were girl soldiers who were looking for a way to flee from the horror.
Along with shelter, Sister Rosemary gave them a lot of love and a future: professional formation with cooking and sewing classes. Today, many are teachers or seamstresses, among the most highly respected in the country.
These women are world renowned for the bags they make, incredibly bright and colorful, since they are made out of soda cans. Some Hollywood stars have bought them as a gesture of beneficence, paying as much as$5,000 for them.
9) Paolo Cortesi, or the risk of welcoming refugees
The Passionist missionary Paolo Cortesi, was chosen “Person of the Year” in Bulgaria, plus the country’s prestigious recognition, assigned by the Helsinki Bulgarian Committee, for his contribution in the defense of human rights. It is the first time the recognition was granted to a person who is not Bulgarian (Father Cortesi is Italian). It is also the first time a representative of a religious confession was chosen.
Welcoming Pope Francis’ proposal, Father Cortesi had welcomed a family of Syrian refugees in his parish home, in the city of Belene.
His decision angered local radical groups, who threatened to kill the priest. In spite of everything, he did not harbor anger: “People from here are good, but sometimes it only take a little bit to start a fire,” he said, accepting the recognition with a smile.
10) Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, a prince at the service of the most needy
Dominique de La Rochefoucauld-Montbel, a Great Hospitaller of the Order of Malta, coordinates one of the biggest humanitarian organizations on the planet, but few journalists know it.
Just in the waters of the Mediterranean, in the last nine years, this institution with its boats and medical teams has saved the lives of 53,712 (yes, you read that right) immigrants and refugees from the Middle East and Africa who set out on the dangerous adventure of seeking a better future in Europe.
While Dominique La Rochefoucauld-Montbel is a prince, a member of one of the oldest families of the French nobility, he is dedicating his life completely to the Christian assistance of the most needy. The numbers of his coordination work are impressive: it has undertaken close to 2,000 aid projects in 120 countries, with 100,000 volunteers, who are assisted by 25,000 permanent employees.
During the last year, they have cared for more than 1.6 million people in one of the 435 centers supported by Malteser International, the Order of Malta’s NGO for aid. In northern Iraq, for example, it offers care for refugees in Dohuk, Erbil, and Nineveh, and it manages mobile clinics that allow it to reach the most remote towns. In Syria, it supports the pediatric hospital of Aleppo, whose NICU services made it a unique center in the region, equipped to help babies who are premature or affected by serious illnesses.
When he was asked why he does all this, the prince answered: “We see Christ in the sick and in those who suffer. We see him in the refugees. The Gospel says: ‘I was hungry and you gave me to eat; I was thirsty and you gave me to drink …’ This is the essence of what it means to be a member of the Order of Malta.”