This reflection is part of the Lenten Reflection Guide 2022: Upholding Human Dignity and Human Rights.
“Then Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.’”
- John 8: 11
In this Sunday’s Gospel, the Scribes bring before Jesus a woman caught in adultery. When they ask Jesus to condemn her, he says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” After they all depart, Jesus tells the woman he does not condemn her and invites her to go and sin no more.
In various stories throughout Scripture, we hear a similar pattern repeated: a person has an encounter with God’s overwhelming mercy and love, and from that experience is moved to change their life. The experience of mercy proceeds or precipitates transformation.
In many societies around the world, certain groups of people are reviled or made outcasts for having transgressed moral codes, laws, or norms. Two of these groups in particular are victims of sex trafficking and undocumented immigrants. Especially in the United States, undocumented immigrants are condemned as “illegal” and understood as burdens to society. In many countries, victims of sexual exploitation are blamed for having chosen a dirty industry and are seen as permanently damaged.
God’s mercy toward us challenges us to view those who are made outcasts with mercy in return. The fundamental dignity of those whom society rejects demands that not only their human rights be protected, but that they be treated with utmost respect and care.
Maryknoll Sister Helene O’Sullivan works with women in Cambodia who are trying to escape the sex trade. Many of them entered the industry or were sold as sex slaves because of the desperate poverty their families faced. The center Sr. O’Sullivan founded helps give these women education that will allow them to find well-paying jobs that will allow them to provide for their families.
“We have to change the stigmatism in society,” Sr. Helene says. “[Some people] say there’s always a choice [to enter the sex trade]. I show them that when you are in such dire poverty and the obligation falls to you to help the family… and there’s no way you can get money quickly… So you go to a brothel and get initial money up front; it’s like debt bondage. It’s always this tremendous self-sacrifice... I think it is important to help [the women] to see what they have done for their families, and to reclaim their honor and reclaim their sense of dignity. It is a form of resurrection, indeed it is.”
“There’s a beautiful icon that symbolizes [this transformation],” Sr. O’Sullivan continues. “It’s an icon of Mary… Her whole center, her whole core is empty like the universe but there is the Earth, the moon and you see it, the whole universe is there. When the girls come in [to the educational center] it’s like they come in with one big gaping hole in the center of their being. The thing is to help them to see there’s a whole world inside of you. That nothing has touched your basic dignity as a human being. You deserve so much better.”
Questions for Reflection
When have you experienced God’s transformative mercy? How can you reflect and extend that kind of mercy for others in your family or society?
A Prayer for the End of Human Trafficking
God of freedom, beauty and truth
we believe that your deepest desire,
your most powerful energy,
is that all creation might know abundant life.
We raise our voices in anguished prayer
for our sisters and brothers,
women and girls, men and boys,
who are modern day slaves;
They are your beloved daughters and sons,
exploited sexually or forced to work
because of human violence and greed.
Fill us with your holy anger and your sacred passion
that those who are trafficked might know healing and justice; that traffickers will come to repentance and conversion; that all of us might live in such a way
that others are not made to pay the price
for our comfort and convenience.
Hasten the coming of the day when all people
and our precious Earth itself
will be treated, not as a commodity,
but as radiant images of your freedom, beauty and truth.
Amen. May it be so.
- From the Sisters of Charity of Saint Elizabeth,
Convent Station, N.J.
Ask your family and friends what breaks their peace and what brings them peace. Think of a way you can make a difference for them.
Faith in Action
Visit the U.S. Catholic Sisters Against Human Trafficking action center to sign a petition, contact your representative, or take other actions against human trafficking.
Maryknoll Mission Experience
“Christianity demands justice. Christianity demands our attention and direct action on behalf of any who are denied life in abundance…
"I take that literally. Working with migrants in immigration jail, locked up simply because they are asking for protection from the U.S. through asylum, demands that I defend their safety and their rights as guaranteed by U.S. law and U.S. legal obligations to international law. But the call to human rights and human dignity demands that we work for infinitely more than minimum conditions or survival. Human dignity refers to respect, access to justice, and life in abundance (Jn 10:10).
"I am an asylum and immigration attorney at the El Paso border with the Mexican city of Juárez. My ministry here is not only to defend asylum seekers and give them a less unfair chance in immigration court, but to really see them as (often) vulnerable, traumatized people who left behind everything they know — their home, family, language, culture — to ask for protection from the United States. I want them to know that I hear and see them and that I defend each person individually.”
- HEIDI CERNEKA,
Maryknoll Lay Missioners
Photo of Marian icon courtesy of the Maryknoll Sisters. Photo of Heidi Cerneka courtesy of the Maryknoll Lay Missioners.