Fr. Paddy’s Blog

It was a lawyer who asked Jesus in the Gospel, ‘Who is my neighbour?’ He was probably expecting a definition that would determine the limits of his obligations. Did ‘neighbour’ refer to his immediate community, or did it extend beyond that to the whole village? Should people living nearby in the countryside be considered neighbours also? What about those of a different race or religion? And what about troublemakers and criminals: should they too be thought of as neighbours? Instead of giving a definition, Jesus told a story: about an unfortunate man who had been beaten, robbed and left half dead by the side of the road. Several respectable members of society heard his cry for help but ignored him. But one passerby, a Samaritan heard the man’s groans, was moved with compassion and came to his rescue. He bandaged his wounds, brought him to an inn, and even offered to pay his expenses. Having heard the story, the lawyer acknowledged that it was the despised Samaritan who truly was a neighbour to the unfortunate man. Jesus then concluded, ‘Go, and do the same yourself’.

If Jesus were to tell the story today, perhaps he would tell it differently. He might talk about a family of Ukrainian refugees who must flee their home in Mariupol. Leaving all their possessions behind, desperately hoping to find security for their children, after months of rejection they eventually arrive in a small village in the west of Ireland. There they are welcomed by the community, given shelter by a local family, and warmly accepted into the local school. Or maybe Jesus would tell another story: about those who set out often defying official regulations to rescue migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean in flimsy boats about to sink. Or perhaps he would talk about those who dedicate themselves to rescuing vulnerable women who are being trafficked, and sexually exploited. There are so many stories Jesus could talk about today’s Good Samaritans who come to the aid of our migrant neighbours. His parting words would remain unchanged, however: ‘Go, and do the same yourself’.

Some eight hundred years ago, a young Italian called Francis went out one day for a walk. He was widely known and well-liked by the people. When he came to a village called Gubbio, the villagers told him of a wolf living nearby that sometimes killed their lambs and threatened them when they tried to defend them.

‘What did you do?’ asked Francis. They answered, ‘We tried poisoning it; when it came near, we stoned it, threw spears and shot arrows at it. We did everything we could think of, but we failed. It’s too clever for us, and tough as well’. ‘Where does the wolf live?’ asked Francis. ‘Over there’, they said, and pointed to the woods on the nearby hillside. ‘I’ll go there’, said Francis, ‘and talk to my brother the wolf’. The people told him he was mad even to think of such a thing. They said the wolf was angry and aggressive and would surely attack him. He was very strong, they said, and could overpower any man. Francis simply repeated, ‘I’ll go’, and off he went. The people expected never to see him again.

Francis approached the wood openly, looking out for tracks as he went. After a while he saw the footprints of a wolf on the soft ground. They were large and deep. He kept going, following the prints until he came to a clearing in front of an opening in the rocks on the hillside. There he sat and waited, quietly humming a tune to himself. After a long time, Francis thought he heard a sound. He looked up and saw that the wolf had emerged from the opening and was looking straight at him. It looked angry and growled threateningly. Francis stayed where he was, then slowly reached into his pocket and took out a piece of food he had brought with him. He held it out towards the wolf. The wolf backed further away and growled louder, baring its teeth. ‘It’s frightened’, thought Francis, so he broke off a piece of the food and laid it on the ground in front of himself. He then moved back a little and waited. Slowly and hesitantly, the wolf was drawn by the smell of the food. It edged nearer to Francis, eyeing him carefully all the time. Then, in a sudden dash, it grabbed the food and ran back. Francis stayed where he was and waited. The wolf re-appeared. This time Francis held the remaining food out in front of him and kept it there. The wolf, suspecting a trick or trap, crouched and watched him, ready to run. Then, drawn once again, it came forward again and snatched the food from Francis’ hand without harming him. Francis got up slowly, turned around in front of the wolf, and walked back to the village. The people there were amazed to see him, and even more to notice that he was completely unhurt. ‘What happened?’ they asked, ‘Did you see the wolf?’ So, he told them, and then said, ‘Brother Wolf was hungry. That was why he stole your lambs’. When you attacked him, he became angry. When you tried to kill him, he defended himself. Give him food and you’ll make a friend of him.’. He asked people to collect the scraps of food left over from the village each day and to bring them to the wood. They did so and the wolf no longer attacked them. The villagers and the wolf of Gubbio became friends, and they grew in respect for the young man, Saint Francis of Assisi.

‘If your enemies are hungry, feed them’. (Romans 12.20)