25 March, 2019

Each page a victory At whose expense the victory ball? Every ten years a great man, Who paid the piper?

~ Bertolt Brecht, “A Worker Reads History” ~

Bertolt Brecht’s poem reminds us how we – ordinary people – are agents of history, make our own destiny. The Solemnity we celebrate today reminds us of this.

Though her unmarried state put her at serious risk – from social condemnation and ostracism, through possible divorce, even the possibility of being stoned to death – just over 2000 years ago, a young Palestinian Jewish woman agreed to have a son. Momentous as it was for Mary, it was a minor event (indeed it went unrecorded) in the history of the Roman Empire. We know the rest of that story. We are now part of his story (and her story).

On this day in 1807 the British parliament voted to abolish the slave trade throughout the British Empire. It didn’t end slavery as such, as the leading campaigner against slavery William Wilberforce had hoped. But by ending the trade it would ultimately destroy the system that relied upon it. A small victory, but significant for what followed –in 1832 slavery in its most commonly understood form was abolished in the British Empire, and within decades almost everywhere.

Moments that pass: blink and we sometimes miss them. Yet it is often in the small moment that we find the seed of the world-changing event. In her refusal to be intimidated by her culture, in her faith in God’s protection, Mary initiates a process that will become, in Jesus, the turning point of human history. Driven by his faith in the same Christ, Wilberforce and his fellow abolitionists become agents of a law that would give humanity a great leap forward towards what we now call human rights.

Brecht’s poem, quoted above, echoes these sacred and secular events, in reminding us how history is also made by the obscure, the forgotten, the weak: the worker who refuses to carry his Pass; the housekeeper who decides (against the law) to live in a ‘white’ residential area; the student who studies by candlelight in a shack so as to get into university to become a doctor; and – today – the voter who refuses to be intimidated and votes with her conscience.


Through the example of Mary, Lord, make us ready to hear your call to greatness. Make us agents of our own history. Following the example of Wilberforce, let us take the necessary small steps that in the end change our world. Amen.


Catholic Parliamentary

Liaison Office

Jesuit Institute
South Africa

Reflection prepared by and

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ

Fr Matthew Charlesworth SJ entered the Society of Jesus in 2005 and underwent the usual course of studies in his formation, which took him to such varied places as Canada, France, Ireland, Kenya, Spain, Tanzania, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zambia, Zimbabwe, and South Africa. Whilst working at the Institute, Matthew managed the background technical aspects of much of the Institute's work and was involved in the Spirituality work, completing the Advanced Spiritual Directors Training Course and the Spiritual Exercises Training run by the Institute. He is a member of Spiritual Directors International and was also a part-time lecturer in Sacred Scripture at St Augustine College of South Africa. He is currently the Director of Communications for the Jesuits in Southern Africa, based in Lusaka, Zambia.

m.charlesworth@jesuitinstitute.org.za @mcharlesworth
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