At the beginning of January, I shall be going to Sabah for a vocations’ seminar. I went for the first time, last year, and was very impressed by the gathering of about 150 young men, who wanted to know more about diocesan priesthood. I had been invited to speak to them about the Mill Hill missionary vocation and I discovered that most of them did not know of Mill Hill, even though the Church in Sabah was founded by Mill Hill Missionaries. However, that is not really surprising, for most of the Mill Hill men were expelled from Sabah forty years ago, long before those young men were born. So, I took delight in connecting them again with their “roots”!
I always enjoy going to Sabah, particularly because I enjoy meeting the Sabah priests, many of whom, I have helped educate over the last thirty years. Seeing them enjoying their role as priests, happy and fulfilled in their vocation, enables me to see more clearly what it is I am doing in my work at St Peter’s College, the seminary in Kuching where I teach. My daily routine at the seminary is taken up with saying prayers, teaching, cutting grass etc. – and it is easy to get so absorbed in the small tasks of our lives that we lose sight of what we are a part of. However, when I see those young priests at work, my work in the seminary is put into context and I return to that work with a new vision, a new energy and new ideas.
What is true of my work in the seminary is also true of our Christian lives as a whole. We can get so absorbed in the bits and pieces of day-to-day Christian living that we can lose sight of that to which we are called. This time of year, however – Advent, a time of waiting for the Lord’s coming – usually prods me into raising my head, above the essay papers and grass cuttings to look at where I have come from and whither I am being led. This comes home to me particularly in confession – from both my own Christmas confession and listening to the confessions of others. They are often so dominated by lists of failure with regard to prayer and self-control etc. that the question can arise – “Are these things really important?” When that question arises, I realise that I need to stand back to get an overall vision so I can see their place in my journey, for without it, my vision of what it is to be a Christian could become swamped in pettiness.
Above all, it is the Christmas gathering at prayer that gives me such an overall vision. Even though some may not be very good at praying at other times of the year, Christmas seems to call to Christians everywhere to remember what we are a part of – we are being made into a people, a family, with all the responsibilities that being a member of that family implies. It is at Christmas that we find the urge to reach out in kindness to those not belonging to our immediate family, even if it is only with a kindly greeting or a small gift and when we do so, we are given an insight into what God is doing with us all – bringing us together and overcoming the divisions that cause such trouble and pain in our world.
This “being brought together” is another way of understanding “salvation”. We often talk about salvation in such a “religious” way that we lose sight of the fact that our salvation begins here on earth, begins in all those ways in which we learn to give and receive, to forgive and be forgiven, to love and be loved. It is here in these human everyday interactions with each other that the grace of God moulds us – teaching us and enabling us to live together as brothers and sisters – and in so doing slowly brings us to maturity as his sons and daughters. It is this overall vision of our Christian lives, which helps us see why our prayers and other daily duties of being a Christian are important. However, their importance does not lie in themselves, but in what they prepare us for. Thus, we try to say our daily prayers so that God may inspire us to works of love and service. We try to control our tongues so that our words may comfort and encourage those, who are downhearted. We refrain from stealing so that we may come to share with those in need. We resist sexual dissipation so that we may truly love others. But, we need that overall view of what we are being called to in order to see the importance of these “bits and pieces” of the daily Christian life – and it is Christmas, which gives us such a glimpse.
I have just come back from a quick trip to Sabah for the ordination of two of our students. I was only there for one night, but that night was one set aside for confessions at a Parish some five miles or so from the Cathedral and the priests asked me if I would like to accompany them to hear confessions, so I agreed. The church was packed, when we arrived, but because there were about 15 – 20 priests hearing confessions, we finished after about an hour and a half and were rewarded with a meal. The people were a little surprised to see a foreign priest and I thought they might be a little wary of coming to confession to me, thinking that they would have to use English. However, when they learnt that I could manage in Malay, I was as busy as the other priests, although the counselling part of confession was not as easy as it would have been in English.
I write a column, called “Padi Seeds” once a month, which is published in English and Malay in the local Catholic newspaper there, “Catholic Sabah”. After confession, some people came up to shake hands and then a group of young women came up and asked me a question in Malay, which I did not catch at first, so one of them put it into English. “Are you”, she asked, “Father Padi Seeds?”
One more week and the students go home for their long holiday. I am looking forward to the break, for I feel rather tired. However, I also have quite a tight agenda for the 6 week break. I go to Kenya for my nephew’s wedding, then the vocations’ seminar, followed by a trip to Jakarta, then meetings in the Philippines and Sibu – and in the middle of all this there is Christmas, New Year and Chinese New Year. The only time I can get to Bali will be the last week of the break, but I will fit that in somehow.