HOMILY GIVEN BY BISHOP JOSÉ AT THE FUNERAL OF
BISHOP JOE SANDRI
06 June 2019
- About ten years’ ago, when I was bishop of Ingwavuma and this diocese was waiting for the appointment of a new bishop, I happened to meet a religious sister – allow me not to give more details of place and congregation (!) – who happened to tell me: “Hope Fr Joe Sandri will be the new bishop of Witbank”. Interesting enough, I did not know him. Not that I know many people but we had both been living in Rome, at the same time, doing the same service for our religious congregations but we had never met. I remember wondering: “Who is this Joe Sandri?”
Our coming here today brings together different things:
- we pray that God welcomes Joe home;
- we also pray to the God of all consolation that he gives, all of us, peace in our hearts;
- naturally, we also bring back stories and events, in his and our lives, that helps us answer that question: “Who was Joe?”.
I am not sure, though, if that is what he would have liked us to do. Joe was a Comboni missionary and, as such, had been called to consecrate his live to the proclamation of the Gospel to all peoples. It was never about him but about the Good News of Jesus Christ he was called to proclaim.
There is an old saying – don’t really know where it comes from – which says: The wise man points to the sun, the fool keeps staring at the wise man’s finger. It would be tricky if we would come here together to stare at the wise man’s finger instead of looking towards the place that finger was pointing to.
2. He chose in fact “Venio ministrare” – “I have come to serve” – as his episcopal motto pointing to the one who said: “the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:28)
The people of this diocese witnessed that for a long time as you welcomed him in 1972 and for 20 years he served in four different parishes and the diocesan pastoral centre. Later on, for another nearly 10 years as your bishop.
At a time when “corruption” seems to be the fashion, the way of life, Joe bet his life on serving others. At a time when the only question people seem to have is: what is there for me? What is my cut? Izandla ziyagezana… At a time when making, what belongs to all, my private property, at a time when people seem to live as if there is no tomorrow, he chose to serve in such a way that he would never put himself at the centre but Jesus and those in need.
It always amazes me that in countries like ours (South Africa) or our neighbours in Eswatini (where I serve as a bishop) where people call themselves Christians and follow all types of pastors, preachers, apostles, prophets… more and more we choose a way of life that is exactly the opposite to the one Jesus gave us putting us – probably – at a worse level than the Pharisees because at least Jesus could tell of them: “do what they tell you to do” but probably we are not even at that level ourselves. Joe was indeed very much worried about this way of life that “corrupts” our own dignity.
Saint Mother Theresa of Calcutta used to say we could summarize the Gospel in five words. Remembering the passage on the last judgement from Matthew 25 (I was hungry… thirsty… sick… in prison…) she would summarize the gospel in those five words from Jesus: “you did it to me” (nakwenzela mina).
Myself though, many times choose to quote instead today’s passage from the Gospel of Matthew where Jesus reacts to the apostles looking for special places in the Kingdom of God by saying: “not so among you”.
‘You know that among the gentiles the rulers lord it over them, and great men make their authority felt. Not so among you. No; anyone who wants to become great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first among you must be your slave, just as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.’
Bishop Joe Sandri knew that coming to serve certainly does not put oneself at the centre, does not make you famous or rich, but he understood it is the only way to witness Jesus and to give life to all.
3. I believe his coming to serve applied even to details and unexpected events. I’ve heard many times Sr Hermenegild Makoro, our Secretary General, say that Joe was the first one to answer to her emails (when some of us bishops might never do it).
She added: “I could approach him at any time and request him to attend meetings with the government especially when he was at CIE as Liaison bishop, he would always say we cannot miss this opportunity and he would come and to the extent of making changes in his own diary.”
One of my confreres many times told me about the day he got stuck with his Nissan 1400 on the N4 at 10 pm and the bishop went to his rescue.
There was no “pick and choose” regarding when to serve, when to be available and to whom. He did it joyfully in the spirit of today’s second reading (which was pointed out – probably by one of you present today – on Facebook)
“Give a shepherd’s care to the flock of God that is entrusted to you: watch over it, not simply as a duty but gladly, as God wants; not for sordid money, but because you are eager to do it. Do not lord it over the group which is in your charge, but be an example for the flock.”
He cared for everyone. He cared for the people of this diocese, he cared for the priests…
When Bishop Ndlovu (my predecessor in Manzini) died in August 2012 he could have been appointed administrator of the diocese of Manzini but was aware he already had a large diocese to serve and feared not to be able to cope. He had you at heart!
He cared for bishops too! In our Metropolitan Province he made sure we would come together at least once a year and also coordinate the meeting with the religious superiors.
4. We, bishops, cannot recall him being “angry” but always as joyful man. With this joy and sense of humour he would be very clear in his message when he had to do so.
There was a story he used to repeat in the last months. Going “home” in Italy, he was somehow “shocked” to see that even some friends or relatives seem to support the negative attitude being led by the Italian government regarding immigrants. Joe never took it easy. He would tell them: “you complain about inmigrants unless you need them to work for you or you look for a prostitute” (as many women from our continent have been trafficked to Italy). He would say it even in a funny tone but making it clear that he was not joking. We all have the risk of complaining about things unless they are useful to us. He knew, like Jesus, how to open our eyes to the realities around us.
5. Bishop Joe joined Jesus in his passion during our Lenten Season. We never saw it coming. A number of us had been with him at LUMKO for three days at a meeting with Superior Generals of Diocesan born congregations. His, was a long passion during which he remained strong. He never gave up. He seemed to have accepted it with peace.
He was called home on Ascension day leaving us a message not only about where we are all going to but about a sense of mission.
In fact, it would be very easy for us now to remain staring at the wise man’s finger, like the apostles did on Ascension day looking to the sky as Jesus was taken up. It would be very easy to remain staring at his life, praise him and then go home. It would be like the story of the people who were given a map to find a treasure and chose to make copies of the map, frame it but never started the journey to find it.
The life of a bishop, the life of a priest, the life of a Comboni missionary is a call to point to the sun, to journey towards the treasure … Hope you and me will not just remember him for who he was but for who he wanted us to be: joyful and selfless witnesses to the Good News of Jesus with our lives and words.