Mill Hill Missionary and Adventurer for the Lord
With the passing of Father Josef Haas, Mill Hill has lost one of its great adventurers, one, who truly lived out the Mill Hill motto: “to love and to serve”. He was born in 1938 in the mountains of North Tyrol, Austria, near the Mill Hill Missionshaus, where he began his studies to become a Mill Hill Missionary. He was ordained priest, at Mill Hill, in 1964, and appointed to Sabah, where he served in various parishes and helped to establish several Christian communities. In 1972, the Sabah Government revoked the work permits of many of the Catholic priests, including Fr. Josef, and ordered them to leave the country. However, he and other Mill Hill men wanted the Catholics of Sabah to know that they were not leaving them willingly, so they escaped to the hills and for the next several weeks – helped by their Catholic parishioners – they played hide and seek with the army and police, who hunted for them. Then, on the advice of their Bishop, they surrendered, were jailed and put them on a plane out of the country; but, in last gesture of defiance, they marched to the plane in their cassocks with their red Mill Hill sashes a-flying! After they were expelled – or maybe because of it – vocations in Sabah began to increase as local men came forward to replace them as priests.
A year later, he and four other ex-Sabah Mill Hill men took up a ten-year contract in Pontianak Diocese, Kalimantan, even though it meant giving up their own nationalities to become Indonesian citizens. Fr. Josef would set out to visit and care for the Catholics of his far-flung parish with each visitation taking about a month; he walked barefoot along the muddy tracks and stayed in both Catholic and pagan villages along the way. He thus became well-known in the area and also began to bring the mail with him for those, who lived along the way. The young people came to look forward to his visits and would go a day or two’s journey to meet him, when they heard he was coming and, as they walked along with him and his catechist, they would ask questions about the Catholic Faith and learn the Catholic prayers. The Indonesian Government then decided that everyone had to belong to one of the five big religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Catholic or Protestant. The people of Father Josef’s parish talked among themselves as to which Faith they would join and they decided to join Fr. Josef – but they did not mention this to him! It was only when he sent in his annual returns to Rome, saying that he had 2,000 Catholics that he discovered what had happened, for Rome wrote back:“According to the Indonesian Government, you have 80,000 Catholics!”
The Indonesian Diocese of Pontianak lay next to the Malaysian Borneo Diocese of Kuching, where Mill Hill Missionaries still worked and, although there were no roads connecting the two dioceses, sometimes the Pontianak Mill Hill men crept over the border to visit their Mill Hill brothers in Kuching. This was illegal, because they had been black-listed by the Malaysian Government when they had resisted being expelled from Sabah. However, the local Catholics guided them and they would enjoy a few days of rest and relaxation, before their fellow MillHillers took them back to the border – usually giving them a large salami sausage and a bottle of whisky to take back with them.
When the contract with Pontianak expired, he and Fr. Ton Putman MHM, even though they were past 50 years of age, offered their services to the Diocese of Irian Jaya, one of the most physically tough missions in Indonesia. They were accepted and Fr. Josef worked there until 1989. The mountainous terrain of Irian Jaya made travelling very difficult and so Fr. Josef got the idea that the best way to reach the people was by airplane. To this end, he obtained his pilot’s license, and even found a sponsor for the airplane, but he was not able to put his plan into action because the cost of the insurance needed for such a venture was beyond him.
At the end of his term in Iran Jaya, he spent two years at St Anselm’s in UK and, on his return to Indonesia, he found a new home and missionary challenge in Ambon, the “Diocese of a thousand islands”. While there, he was caught up, about ten years ago, in the religious war between Muslims and Christians, which resulted in his parishioners being expelled from their farms, to which they have never been allowed to return and the monetary compensation awarded them by the Indonesian Government mostly “disappeared” before it reached them. It was the care of this “scattered flock”, which occupied the last ten years of Fr. Josef’s life and though he often had not much more than just his caring presence to offer them, he never ceased to visit them.
Three years ago, he visited Sabah again, at the invitation of Bishop Cornelius Piong of Keningau, an old friend of many years standing. Bishop Cornelius took him on a two-week tour to many of the places where he had worked and he was astonished at how the seeds he had helped sow had grown and he was also astonished that he was still remembered and with such affection. Bishop Cornelius said later of that trip, “Same old Joe – just three “bajus” (shirts), one on, one in the wash and one ready to wear!” It was true; all he was given he saved for his people and never for himself.
In May of this year, he was admitted to hospital with hepatitis and was told of a suspected stomach tumour, so he brought forward a planned visit to his homeland, Austria, and there he was diagnosed with advanced terminal cancer. He wanted so much to return to Ambon to say goodbye to his many friends, but it was not granted him and after a few short weeks, the Lord called him to begin his last missionary journey. He was buried amidst the beautiful Tyrolean scenery, where he first heard his call to be a missionary. We have lost a close friend and missionary companion and the poor have lost a very caring pastor. May the Lord grant Fr. Josef rest – and may he also raise up other missionaries to replace him!