Today, Catholic Christians celebrate the Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On this day, we hear some very sobering words of Jesus reminding us that our lives on this Earth are limited, so we should always focus on our eternal destiny.
Specifically, we read, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life” (Matthew 16: 24-26)?
Throughout the 2,000-year history of Catholic Christianity, many people have served the Lord in spite of dangerous conditions. They do this not out of a death wish, but because God has called them to serve him in a special way in a specific location. Sometimes, this leads them to lose their life. That is what we see in the story of Annalena Tonelli.
Annalena Tonelli was born on April 2, 1943 in Forli, Italy. As a young adult, she became a lawyer specializing in providing legal service to those in most need of her town – the poor, the orphans, the mentally ill, the disabled, and the abused children.
In 1969, as a young woman, Annalena went to Kenya in East Africa sponsored by the Committee Against World Hunger of Forli.
In Kenya, Annalena began working as a teacher in a secondary school in the area of Wajir, but after some years, she decided to enter nursing school to prepare to serve the sick in her area. As a nurse, she worked more than a decade caring for those most in need.
In 1976, Annalena headed up a pilot project for the World Health Organization for treating tuberculosis in nomadic people. To ensure that the patients would take their medications faithfully over a treatment course of six months, Annalena invited the nomad tuberculosis patients to come to the Rehabilitation Centre for the Disabled that she was running with the help of other women volunteers. The pilot project was a success, and World Health Organization adopted this model for other areas of the world.
Annalena also created a deaf school in Wajir. Many of the graduates of this school went on to start schools in Somali-speaking Africa, and it was in this school, that Somali Sign Language was first used.
In 1984, the Kenyan army engaged in the massacre of 5,000 Somali boys and men. Though many of the people were killed, some survived. Annalena and her volunteers followed the trail of blood to collect the bodies of the dead and treat the wounded. Annalena brought with her a photographer to document this male genocide. From that moment on, she was seen as an enemy of the Kenyan government and was banned from the country.
From Kenya, Annalena moved to Somalia, and there she stayed for the next 19 years. During this time, she started a tuberculosis hospital, and her family and friends in Italy helped finance the hospital by contributing money each month to maintain it.
In June of 2003, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees awarded Annalena Tonelli the Nansen Refugee Award. This prize is given annually to recognize outstanding service to the cause of refugees.
Unfortunately, in October of 2003, just four months after receiving her international award, unknown gunman assassinated Annalena at the tuberculosis hospital she had founded. There are many theories about why she was killed. Some say it was because she brought HIV/AIDS patients to the area. Others felt she was spreading disease in the town. Others said it was a disgruntled former worker who had been fired. And others said it was a radical Islamic terrorist group that wanted her dead.
Two weeks after Annalena Tonelli’s killing, two other workers were murdered in Somalia at their school. Many believe the assassins were members of the same terrorist group that assassinated Annalena.
Annalena’s story is not only inspirational on so many levels, but it is a model of how a person follows God’s will no matter where that takes her. From a young student believing her call was to be a lawyer, to a legal champion for the underdogs of society, to a teacher in a remote African town, to a nurse who founded many health care ministries, to a martyr, Annalena lived the kind of life that Jesus was talking about in today’s Gospel passage.
Annalena embraced her crosses daily and did the best with what she had. When she needed to change courses – for example from lawyer to teacher to nurse – that is what she did. Though she didn’t know where all of this would end, it didn’t matter to her, for her eyes were always on serving God. Thus, serving in dangerous areas never dismayed her.
As we continue our life journeys this week, it would be a good idea to reflect on how we follow God’s will no matter where it takes us.
And that is the good news I have for you on this Twenty-Second Sunday in Ordinary Time, 2017.
Story source: Contributors to Wikipedia. “Annalena.” Wikipedia: The Free
Encyclopedia, 28 July 2017.