When the good deacon and I traveled to Germany a few weeks ago, his cousins greeted us as soon as we passed though customs at the airport in Dusseldorf. We know Father Stjepan and his nephew Josip from our previous trips to Croatia and many emails and phone calls since. The fatigue that plagued us during the long flight disappeared in the glow of their smiling faces. Any trepidation regarding our visit was lost in their welcoming embraces. After stowing our luggage in the trunk of Stjepan’s car, we settled in for the ride to Essen. As he drove along, Stjepan relayed our itinerary for the day and Josip translated every detail. We’d begin with breakfast at the sisters’ monastery, one of the buildings that make up the Croatian Catholic Mission of St. Mary. The mission chapel is attached to the convent and rests across the courtyard from the rectory and the mission offices. When we arrived, Mike and Josip carried our luggage to the rectory’s third floor. There we found the visitors’ flat, a perfect accommodation for our visit. After a three-minute tour, we walked over to the convent where breakfast awaited us. Stjepan shares all of his meals with the sisters, and he arranged for Josip, Mike and me to do the same during our stay. While I expected to enjoy the sisters’ Croatian and German cooking, I immediately found that they offered much, much more at their table.
Cloth napkins adorned beautiful table settings at each of our places. Though most of the sisters had left earlier to begin the day’s work, the two sisters who remained welcomed Mike and me as though they’d known us forever. Stjepan led us in prayer before we took our seats to feast on a traditional European breakfast. As we passed plates of meat and cheese, bread, fresh tomatoes and peppers, Stjepan noted that it was September 8, the Birthday of Mary. He asked if I celebrated this name day in the United States. When I shared that we’d celebrated our family name days since our sons were babies, Stjepan and the sisters broke into song. Josip translated the beautiful Croatian Marian hymn that they’d sung in my honor. As we ate, the sisters asked about our flight and what we hoped to see while in Germany. They asked about our children and grandchildren and our careers. Though poor Josip had to translate most of what was said, he managed to eat heartily. No meaning seemed to be lost on Stjepan or the good sisters because what words failed to convey seemed quite obvious in our animated body language. By the end of this meal, I realized that I’d arrived at a most precious place.
This particular monastery is home to seven sisters who left Croatia to staff this mission. These gracious women saw to it that their home-away-from-home was the same to Stjepan, Josip, Mike and me all the while that we were with them. Though the sisters differ greatly in personality, their community is strong. Though each one has her own way of doing things, the sisters work together to care for one another and for those whom God places on their path. The truth is that they’ve formed a strong family much like our own, and this bond enriches the mission’s community. Each sister does her part to contribute to the whole, allowing her own gifts to shine in the process. By our third meal together, the banter across the dinner table assured me that each of these sisters and we who were their guests were considered to be among family for the duration.
In today’s gospel (Matthew 21:33-43), Jesus offers the parable of a landowner who takes great care in preparing a vineyard which he’ll offer to tenants to care for. The landowner prepares everything to insure that this vineyard will yield a healthy crop of the finest grapes. Jesus tells us that the man “…planted a vineyard, put a hedge around it, dug a wine press in it, and built a tower. Then he leased it to tenants and went on a journey.” The landowner welcomes his tenants, provides them decent housing and a living wage to tend the vineyard. Still, in spite of the landowner’s efforts, things didn’t go as he expected. When the man sent his servants to retrieve his share of the crop, the tenants beat some of them and killed others. When the landowner sent his own son to claim his harvest, the tenants repaid the landowner’s faith in them by killing his son in order to claim the young man’s inheritance for themselves.
It seems to me that each of us is invited to tend the vineyard that is our life’s circumstances. We can misuse our harvest like the tenants in Jesus’ story and ignore God’s call to share, or we can join the Sisters of the Mission of St. Mary in offering our harvest to whomever God leads to our table.