During the first period I lived in Sarawak – from 1971 to 1984 – about 23 communities, in longhouses and villages, became Christian with me. However, none of them actually became Christian because of me; by that I mean, I was not the one who first attracted them to Christianity – although this was not from want of trying! In my early years in Sarawak, I visited a number of pagan longhouses, sometimes just to show my face, but at other times to spend the night with the people and talk about Christianity. During those visits, I was received in a very kindly manner and the people listened attentively – but no one was interested in taking it any further. The ones who did eventually become Christian with me were people, who had made the first move – either by sending me a letter asking me to visit or, as in one case, upon seeing me having a coffee in an upriver bazaar, asked whether I was the Catholic priest and on answering that I was, said, “Would you come to my Longhouse as some of us are interested in becoming Christian”. When, later, I asked these people what had sparked their interest in Christianity, they all told me that they had met a Catholic who impressed them or that a Catholic person or family had stayed in their longhouse or village and when they had seen that they were not afraid of the spirits and were always ready to help those in need, they had found themselves wanting to know more about becoming Christian. In fact, in the whole of my priestly life, there is only one person who told me that he had become a Catholic because of meeting me – and he was someone who first met me in a situation, where he did not know that I was a priest.
I tell this, because we sometimes speak of “religious vocation” in a way that seems to suggest that only priests, nuns and brothers have a “vocation” or “calling”, but this is obviously incorrect. For instance, the greatest of all vocations is to raise and nurture a child in the love of God and neighbour – the vocation of the Christian mother and father. However, God does not entrust that task to us priests and religious; it is given to the Catholic families of our community. This points to a basic truth of our Faith that all of us have a vocation and not just priests and religious and, as I have illustrated above, in the wider evangelisation scene, it is lay-Catholics, who, through their life of faith, are the ones, who lead people to want to know more about being Christian. Their influence on the people around them shows that they are anything but “ordinary” lay-Catholics. They are apostles, the ones chosen and sent by God with news of the risen Lord, but they preach it by the way they live their lives and not, at least in the first instance, through explicitly religious conversation.
This understanding is important, because without it we can get the idea that only priests and religious are chosen, but nobody else is. That idea – as is obvious from the above – is just not true. Every single person is chosen and has a unique vocation as Blessed Cardinal Newman says:
God has created me to do Him some definite service. He has committed some work to me which He has not committed to another. I have my mission. I may never know it in this life, but I shall be told it in the next. I am a link in a chain, a bond of connection between persons. He has not created me for naught. I shall do good; I shall do His work. I shall be an angel of peace, a preacher of truth in my own place, even while not intending it, if I do but keep His commandments. Therefore, I will trust Him, whatever I am; I can never be thrown away. If I am in sickness, my sickness may serve Him, in perplexity, my perplexity may serve Him. If I am in sorrow, my sorrow may serve Him. He does nothing in vain. He knows what He is about. He may take away my friends. He may throw me among strangers. He may make me feel desolate, make my spirits sink, hide my future from me. Still, He knows what He is about.
This being so, is there, then, anything distinctive or special about the priestly vocation? There is, but it can only be clearly seen against the background of the vocation of all, as described by Cardinal Newman. Thus, the vocation of the whole Church is to love and serve the world in fellowship with God – as the Vatican 2 says in the Constitution Dei Verbum 2 – and the religious Sister and Brother have a special part to play in this. The priestly vocation, however, is primarily directed not towards the world, but to love and serve of the Church. The priest is called to gather the Church, to hold it together and strengthen it through the sacraments, so that it may live out its vocation of love and service to the world more effectively.
The vocation of lay-Catholics is often overlooked, because it can seem as if they live out their Christian vocation, almost by accident, for the explicit choice they make is to marry this partner or to follow that profession or work, but when they do so, they are guided by the Spirit of Love given to them, and so by treating all with respect and friendship, they live out their vocation of love and service, whether they are unaware of it or not – as Blessed Cardinal Newman has indicated. The priest, brother and sister, however, explicitly choose a distinct way of life and do not embark on their life-journey by accident although in the course of that journey they, like the lay-person, will never know all the good they do.
We are familiar with how lay people are called to their way of life through the attraction of their partner-to-be or the work they feel drawn to, but many people are curious as to how the priest, sister or brother is called to embrace their vocation. However, there are as many vocation stories as there are love stories of people who marry. A priest friend of mine recently told me that his vocation story began when he was 23 years old and was listening to a sermon by Bishop Cornelius Piong of Sabah. In the course of it, the bishop said, “I am getting old – who is going to replace me?” My friend told me that he suddenly found himself asking, “Why not me?” and his answer to himself was, “Indeed, why not!” So, he went and offered himself – but it was because he wanted to, not because he felt he ought to – and this is the fundamental sign of a vocation – God touches your heart and you want to follow that touch.
My own story was different. I had wanted to be a missionary priest for as long as I can remember, but for a long time I thought it would not be possible, because I had left school at 16 and had not studied Latin, which was required in those days. However, this “wanting” was not just a private affair between me and God; it was helped through the esteem in which priesthood was held in my family. My family, therefore, are a part of my vocation – as also are my friends, for it was their support, which eventually gave me the courage to write to Mill Hill and ask if I could be accepted as a missionary priest. They were all part of the “coincidences”, which help make up a vocation. I remember, for instance, when I was about 18, being so discouraged in my desire to be a priest that I was ready to drop the idea, because I could not see how it could happen. However, I was walking home, at the time, and my Parish priest passed me on his way into a house on a sick call. I bade him good morning and he turned and said, “Oh hello, Terry”. He went on towards the house, but then turned back and said to me, “Oh Terry, if you ever have thoughts about a vocation – you will come and see me, won’t you?” Before meeting him, I had been walking along with my heart on the ground, but after those few words, my heart flew. Such is the effect, by God’s grace, that our words can have on another – even if you do not think the words important, for when, some years later, I asked my Parish Priest, whether he remembered the incident, he had no memory of it. (Cardinal Newman again!)
I would not wish to give you the impression that my life has always “flown” as it did on that particular day. I have had to face as many difficulties and problems as anyone else – and have also been flat on my face in something almost like despair, one or two times – but God has taken all these things and turned them to the good, as he promised he would (Rom.8:28). However, as I enter the latter part of my life, I know that if God should say to me, “Would you like to begin life again, but this time with a wife and children, a big car and lots of money and influence?” I would say to him, “No! I chose the better part and I am profoundly grateful that you chose me as your priest, for I cannot imagine a richer, more profound and wonderful life than the one you have given me.”
My visit to Sabah went well, last week, and I accepted two young men as new candidates for Mill Hill. We stayed with the Montfort Brothers in Sabah – they are always very welcoming and have a lovely place on a hillside. I think our two new students will do very well there, before we move them next year to Penang.
I and one of the students, with our grass-cutters, have almost got our football field into an acceptable place for playing football. The ground is still a little soft because of the rain, but the long grass has been cut and this means that the sun can now reach the ground and dry it – so hopefully, we will have it in good condition soon. However, having said that, the seminarians go on leave next Saturday for a month and so there will be no one to cut the grass, for I also shall be away for over two weeks in Bali. Then we shall come back to a scene of long grass once more. However, I remind myself that cutting grass is rather like life – it is not the result, but the doing of it that is valuable.
While I was up in Sabah, I slept on a bed, which had a mattress about two inches thick on a wooden base. I must be getting soft, for I found it very hard to sleep and I woke up several times, until having had enough, I took the cushions off the sofa, which was in the room and put them under the mattress. How I missed my comfortable bed in Kuching – and thanked the Lord for the person who had kindly bought me that mattress!
I have two more days of getting up at 5am and then I have a break for a month. Wonderful!