A few weeks before Christmas, I was moved to write to a retired Mill Hill Father, Father Ton Putman, who had been ordained in 1951 and appointed to Sabah, North Borneo – or the Diocese of Jesselton, as it was then called. He worked there until the early 1970s, when the Government decided to cancel the work permits of the Mill Hill priests in Sabah, in an attempt, it is thought, to wipe out Christianity. Father Ton, however, did not obey the order quietly and took to the hills, in order to show his people that he would not willingly leave them. After a few weeks, however, he was caught by the police and, with several other Mill Hill Fathers, imprisoned before being expelled from the country. The, then, Bishop of the Diocese remembers visiting them in prison and finding them, he says, all very joyful and full of the Spirit – and when they were taken to the airport, by the authorities, to be deported, they insisted on marching to the plane in white cassocks and with their red Mill Hill sashes a-flying!
After a period of recuperation in Europe, Father Ton wanted to return to South East Asia and so he accepted an appointment to Indonesia, where he continued his missionary outreach for a further 37 years – first in Pontianak, Indonesian Borneo, and then, when men of his age usually look for an easier style of life, he volunteered to work in Indonesian Papua, one of the physically toughest missions there is, and there he happily remained until 2010, when ill health forced him to return to Holland.
I remember meeting him twice, first in the 1970s, when he crept over the border to Kuching from Indonesia – he was blacklisted by Malaysia at the time – to spend a few days R & R with us and we gave him a bottle of whisky and a salami sausage to carry back with him. I met him again, when I lived in Bali and he came and spent a night with me. I remember that we chatted long into the night and I learnt much more about his life. When I think of him now, I am reminded of that passage in the Book of Genesis 6:3, which says, “In those days there were giants in the land!”
I am not sure why I was prompted to write to him just before Christmas. I had never written to him before, but I just felt a strong desire to tell him about the parish in Sabah where he had worked for many years. So I wrote, telling him that they still remembered him, even though it was 40 years since he had worked there, and they had named their new Church Hall after him – “Father Ton Putman Hall”. I also told him that there was a young man from that parish, who was training to become a Mill Hill Missionary and was now beginning his third year of formation. A week or so later, I received an email from the Rector of the Mill Hill Retirement House in Holland telling me that Father Ton was too weak to reply himself, but he wanted to thank me for the news and that he had been delighted to learn that a young man from his former parish was now taking on his mantle as a Mill Hill Missionary. Ten days later, Father Ton died.
When I heard of his death, I sat pondering as to what had moved me to write to him just before his death – although, at the time, I did not know he was dying – and I am sure that I see the finger of the Lord there. I don’t know why he needed to hear my news at that time and I don’t need to know, but I am sure that the Lord wanted him to know and I am happy that I was the means the Lord used to reach out to him.
I was pondering this again, yesterday, the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. When Jesus went down into the waters of the Jordan to be baptised by John, it was something like an ordination service – the Lord dedicated himself to the love and service of mankind. In his baptism, he joined himself to us in a bond that cannot be broken and, in the same way, when we are baptised, we are dedicated to him, in his love and service for mankind, also in a bond that cannot be broken. Thus, our baptism is something that has to be affirmed by us over and over again. In some ways, it is rather like the wedding, when husband and wife dedicate themselves to each other – but that dedication has to be renewed over and over again, in good times and in bad, if the full “one-flesh” of husband and wife is to come to be. Likewise our “baptismal giving of ourselves” has to be affirmed again and again, in good times and in bad, and in my experience that is done most powerfully in my weakness and failure, for then I am able to say most clearly: “even though I have made a mess of things – you are still the one I want to be with”.
Different people affirm their dedication to the Lord in different ways and at different times, but no matter how we do it, what we are doing is giving ourselves to be his hands and feet, his voice and ears, his heart – the place where the Lord can reach out and comfort people in their need. I don’t know in what way Father Ton needed to be comforted, but I believe that in some way he did and I am deeply touched that the Lord used me to reach out to him.
I am just getting over my third batch of cold or flu or whatever it is. I had a viral cold when I went home to England; I received another when someone sneezed as they were wishing me a Happy Christmas; and I seem to have caught another on the plane back to Malaysia. They may, however, have been just phases of the one cold that ebbed and flowed with the winter rain and cold. Now, thankfully, I am beginning to feel some energy again – hence this blog after a silence of some time.
My sister-in-law, Mary, was supposed to come with me for a holiday, when I returned – the first time since my brother died, nearly two years ago, that she had ventured out. However, she was taken ill and after a time in hospital she has been diagnosed as having some form of cancer in her sinuses. Please remember her in your prayers – and her two sons – and all those who are facing such terrible illnesses. I still hope that once day, after her treatment, she will still be able to come here for a holiday.
We had a Mill Hill Assembly in Sibu last week at which 17 members were present, including our six seminarians. Our rebirth as part of the East Malaysian Catholic scene is quite astonishing. Just a few years ago we were on the point of extinction here due to visa restrictions – that is after 133 years of working in this part of Borneo. However, the Sarawak Government began giving visas again to our priests and also, in 2010, God began calling Malaysian men to join us as Mill Hill Missionaries. I am reminded of the passage from Isaiah 11:1 “A shoot shall spring from the stock of Jesse”!
The students here in Kuching are still on holiday – and so the need for me to cut some grass is more urgent – but, apart from that, this is not a free month for me by any means. This coming weekend I go to Sabah for a vocations’ seminar in the mountains of Bundu Tuhan. Then, the following weekend, I go to Miri for the ordination of their new bishop, who was our Rector here at St Peter’s. I, then, go straight from there to Bali to visit the prison, to meet and pray with friends and lastly, to visit my dentist – but more of that, I am sure, when I write next!
Happy New Year to you all – may you also be moved by the Spirit throughout this year of grace.