In 1942, the Japanese invaded what is now East Malaysia: Sarawak and Sabah. They interned all the Mill Hill missionaries as enemy aliens, except for those from Tyrol, a German speaking part of northern Italy, because Italy was an ally of the Japanese. There were two such missionaries in Sarawak and eight in Sabah, but when, in 1945, Italy surrendered, the eight men in Sabah were rounded up by the Japanese and marched off to an internment camp. They never arrived. Somewhere on that journey, they were killed; we don’t know how and we are not sure where, for their remains were never found.
The news of their deaths eventually reached their home in Tyrol and their story was heard by a newly ordained young priest of the Diocese of Brixen, by the name of Josef Dapoz. Last December, when I visited him in Sabah, he told me that the news of their deaths had a profound effect on him and he began to hear a voice in his heart saying, “Go and replace one of them!” He eventually went to his Bishop to ask if he could join Mill Hill and after thinking about it for a week, his Bishop gave his permission. The young Father Josef left the Tyrol for Mill Hill in London, where he took his oath as a Mill Hill Missionary and, in 1948, he was appointed to Sabah, where he spent the rest of his life. He died two weeks ago, at the age of 90, after 63 years of service – the last Mill Hill priest in Sabah and his death brought to an end 130 years of service by Mill Hill priests in that State.
When someone joins the Mill Hill Missionaries, he takes an oath to dedicate himself to the work of the missions and is given a red sash as a sign of the love and service to which he is called and also of his readiness to lay down his life, if called upon to do so, in the service of the Gospel. At the beginning of Father Josef’s funeral last week, in Kota Kinabalu, I laid a red sash in front of his coffin as a sign of the 63 years of his ministry and also in honour of all the other Mill Hill men who had spent all or part of their lives working in Sabah.
There must have been times during those 63 years, when, like us all, Josef had regrets – for instance, when he heard of the deaths of his mother or father and probably wished he had been at home for them; or when loneliness hit him and he would have liked someone close nearby. At such times, his red sash would have reminded him of the time when he freely chose to walk with the Lord as a missionary and the memory of that choice would have comforted him and helped him over the dark patch he was facing. Such symbols of those choices – red sashes, wedding rings etc. – are important helps in the spiritual life.
One of the earliest teaching documents that we have in the Church is the “Didache”, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”; it comes from about the year 150AD. It begins: “There are two ways: a way of life and a way of death and these two ways are very different”. It is phrased that way to place before the person a clear choice – to walk the way of life with Christ or not. Such a choice is important because it gives meaning and direction to everything else that follows on that journey. Unfortunately, most of us who were born Catholics were not explicitly presented with that choice. Our teachers usually just assumed that we would be Christians, with the result that the Christian life can well appear as just an ongoing series of dark patches, with no memory of an explicit choice to give overall meaning and direction to our journey. For married couples, there is the ring – a memory of the marriage vows, to help them over the difficult times. For Fr. Josef – and also for me – there is the red sash to remind us of the promise we made and that memory, thus far, has helped carry me over the rocks. But all of us need to have such a memory and should we have never looked at the Lord and explicitly chosen to walk with him, then maybe Lent would be a good time to do so.
Ps. Lent begins next Wednesday!
As I have written above, last Friday, I went to Sabah for the funeral of Fr. Josef. It was impressive and the Cathedral was full. While there, I also met a young man whom I first met last January at the vocations seminar in Sabah. He has expressed great interest in becoming a Mill Hill Missionary and is still as keen as ever, so please say a prayer for him. Is this the finger of the Lord, maybe, that the death of the last Mill Hill Father in Sabah, is to be followed by the first Sabah candidate for Mill Hill? Let’s wait and see.
I had a bad day yesterday. I was driving back to the seminary, following a car as it turned into the Cathedral car park, but instead of proceeding up to the seminary, which lies behind the Cathedral, the car in front suddenly stopped. So, I started to drive round it, only to have it suddenly move, turn to the left and crash into me. Fortunately, not much damage was done, except maybe to the person concerned, who was a little distraught – “I didn’t see you, Father!” Poor soul!
Later that evening, after supper, I left to go for a meeting, but on Wednesday evenings there is a Bible course at the seminary and instead of parking at the Cathedral car park, a few yards away, a lot of cars had parked in our small seminary car-park. They were jammed in, completely blocking the road and I was unable to get out. So, I went into the Scripture class to get the drivers to move their cars and as they did so, I tried edging round one of the cars to get to my own car, but slipped into a drain and fell flat on my face. Fortunately I did not hurt myself too much, despite being a rather big man to be falling about! Such days happen! Fortunately, not very often!