Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the Feast of the Ascension of the Lord. This feast celebrates Jesus ascending into heaven after he had appeared to his disciples at various times after his Resurrection from the dead.
Before ascending into heaven, however, Jesus told his disciples, “All power in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go, therefore, and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Matthew 28: 18-20).
The message gave to his disciples is known as the “call to mission,” or the “missionary mandate.”
When we think of missionaries, we often think of the early missionaries of our Church such as St. Paul. Or, we think of missionaries who lived centuries later such as the amazing St. Francis Xavier.
Sometimes, we think of missionaries of our own times, but who have died, missionaries such as the four women martyrs of El Salvador: Maryknoll Sisters Ita Ford and Maura Clarke, Ursuline Sister Dorothy Kazel, and Maryknoll Lay Missionary Jean Donovan.
Today, I present to you a missionary who is still alive. His name is Frank Dolphin, a Maryknoll Brother who likes to say he has “sawdust in my veins” because of his lifelong connection to the circus.
Frank was born into a family with strong circus ties. His father’s two brothers were circus jugglers, and his father used to walk the slack wire at the Boys Club in Worcester, Massachusetts. Frank’s father wanted to follow his brothers into the circus life, but after marrying a woman from County Fermanagh, Ireland, he ruled that out.
Frank grew up in the Dorchester section of Boston in the 1940s and early 1950s. Often, his father took him to visit the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus in Boston Garden. His father would buy peanuts so Frank could feed the elephants. His father was a friend of many of the great jugglers of the time.
As a youngster, Frank dreamed of one day joining the circus. He even practiced juggling and clowning. In fact, he had a big red nose to wear.
God, however, called Frank to be a missionary. So, Frank entered the Maryknoll Brothers’ novitiate in 1957. But in Maryknoll, Frank would often take his fellow Brothers and seminarians to the Ringling Circus when it was at Madison Square Garden in New York City. Frank was a good friend of the ringmaster and famous clowns such as Lou Jacobs and Emmett Kelly.
Frank found that Maryknoll was somewhat like a circus, for mission life is moving around a lot, traveling from place to place. In 1972, Frank was assigned to Chile and spent 25 years there, and later he was in Bolivia for 14 years.
Wherever Brother Frank found himself, he would find the circus, get to know the performers, and see if they needed anything. At minimum, he was always ready to give them spiritual support by being a good listener.
Brother Frank also has a puppet named Kiki, who speaks both English and Spanish. Brother Frank puts on his big red clown nose when he visits children in the hospitals and takes Kiki with him. Brother Frank has found that the children who he has in his English as a second language classes love talking with Kiki and tend to be much more relaxed with Kiki and are not afraid to make mistakes when speaking English.
Brother Frank turned 80 in March, and he was very sad to learn that the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus, often called “The Greatest Show on Earth,” had it final performance on May 21, 2017.
From the Gospel message of today, and from Brother Frank’s story, we can learn many things. Here are just three.
First, note that Jesus uses the concept of “command” as in “all I have commanded you” (Matthew 28: 20). Frequently, when we hear the word “commandment,” we think only of the ten Jewish commandments. We often forget that there are also many Christian commandments such as forgiving our enemies, feeding the hungry, teaching the ignorant, caring for the sick, giving to those who ask, or welcoming the stranger. These are not suggestions; they are Christian commandments upon which we shall be judged. The wise person will read the books of the New Testament to find these commandments and practice them in daily life.
Second, the call to mission is for all disciples of Jesus. All baptized persons are disciples of Jesus, and therefore, we are all called to be missionaries.
Third, though all of us are called to be missionaries, not all are called to be on the front lines of mission in foreign lands. Instead, we stay in our native lands and fulfill our mission mandate by praying for the missionaries who serve on the front lines. We do this by giving to second collections to sister parish ministries, diocesan missionary projects, or national and international missionary efforts. Or, we do missionary work at home by serving the poor and those in need in various ways.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on how we are meeting our missionary mandate.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Feast of the Ascension, 2017.
Story source: J. Francis Dolphin, M.M. “Sawdust In My Veins.” Maryknoll, May/June 2017, pp.