At the end of last year, I performed a wedding, but I was not able to attend the reception, so a few days ago, the bride came to see me, bringing a small gift with which to say thank you. We chatted for a while and I asked her, “Have you divorced yet?” and with a look of horror she answered, “Father Terry, how can you ask such a thing; it is only two months!” I answered, “Well, if you have managed to stay together for two months, then you can manage for the rest of your lives!”
People often imagine that it is the wedding that makes you a married person – but, in reality, it is not! The wedding gives you a “vision of the Far Country”, helps you see where you want to go and the vows, which the couple exchange, help to strengthen their determination to go there – but the marriage itself only comes to be as, each morning, the couple wakes and chooses for their partner that day – choose to be with them, choose to care for them, chooses to forgive them their failings and begin again. There is a song in the movie ‘Brother Sun, Sister Moon’ which speaks to this:
“If you want your dream to be, take your time go slowly.
Do few things, but do them well, heartfelt work grows purely”
The reason that married couples remember their wedding day with photographs etc. and celebrate wedding anniversaries is to remind them of the vision they had when they first began their marriage and to give them the opportunity to renew that choice. It is a basic truth of our living that our life choices can never be made in one go – we are each of us stretched out over a lifetime and the choices of who we want to be are also stretched out over a lifetime and so need to be renewed again and again – hence my remark to that young bride.
I had a similar conversation, about a week ago, when someone asked me whether it was still a mortal sin to miss Mass on a Sunday – something they had learnt as a child. I answered that it was a wrong question, because the question does not take into account what the Sunday observance actually is. I told her that going to Mass on a Sunday was intimately connected with becoming a Christian – in the same way that a wedding is intimately connected with a marriage.
When we are baptised, God asks us through the priest, “Do you want to be a member of my family?” When I answer, “Yes” and am baptised, then I am truly born again as a son or daughter of God and a true brother or sister to all others. This is the meaning of baptism – and should I have been baptised as a baby, then that question is put to me when I am confirmed – and old enough to make the choice for myself. So, baptism can be looked at as “the choice to become a child of God”, in the same way that a wedding is “the choice to become a married person”, but that choice has to be made real day by day, as I choose to live as a son or daughter of God, choose to work with God’s grace as he moulds me more and more as a true member of his family.
However, it is possible to lose sight of this and think of the Christian life as just being concerned about praying for my own needs and fighting against my own weaknesses – and so forget about the needs of and my duties towards my brothers and sisters. This is why we Catholics are called together each week to celebrate the Eucharist, for there I am reminded of what the Christian life is all about. At Mass, I see my family: my brothers and sisters there with me in the church. I see Christ come amongst us, gathering us together and as we receive him in communion, we are given the opportunity to renew our “Yes” – “Yes” I want to be part of your family; “Yes” I will strive to love and care for the members of your family whom I see here with me today; “Yes’, I will work with them to bring your love and compassion to those who have not yet heard your word – so that they also “may be One” (Jn 17:21)
To become a Christian begins with a choice – just as a marriage does – but that choice has to be made real day by day and this is why we have the obligation to gather for Mass, Sunday by Sunday – so that we may see the family we have been invited and chosen to be part of. The Mass gives us a vision of the Far Country we are being led towards by Christ our Lord. There at Mass, we listen to his word, are invited to open our hearts to him in communion – and are able to see our brothers and sisters with whom he is making us into one as his family. To see Mass only as an obligation is to lose the vision and blind us to our great vocation as the children of God.
Last Friday, four young men from East Malaysia began their studies to become Mill Hill Missionaries – the Society I belong to. Mill Hill first came to East Malaysia in 1881 and were the only Catholic priests here until the 1960s, when some local men became priests. Over the last forty years, many of them were expelled and so we concentrated on recruiting young men as local priests. However, in 2010, it was decided that if anyone wanted to follow a missionary vocation – then we would accept them. I must admit that I was not expecting very much to happen, even though I was asked to be the coordinator. However, six months later, a young man heard me talk about Mill Hill and pursued me until I accepted him as a candidate. He was followed by three others and now this year another four have begun their studies. So now we have eight East Malaysians training to become Mill Hill priests. Strange, a few years ago, we thought we were going to die out in Malaysia, but suddenly “A shoot has sprung from the stump of Jesse!” (Is. 11:1) – and now I have to find the money to train them!
The year’s calendar is filling up very quickly. I am due to lead two groups on Retreat in May – both from Sarawak. One is going to Chiang Mai in Thailand and the other to Bali. Both are now over-subscribed – but whether it is the destination or my leading of the Retreat that is the attraction, I am not sure!!
We have a new priest at St Peter’s, Father Francis from the Diocese of Penang. He also is a grass-cutter, but far more assiduous than I – even though he is five years older, 75; he is out every day cutting, whereas I only manage three or four days a week. Fortunately, there seems to be more than enough grass that needs to be cut – or we might end up fighting – a new meaning to the phrase: “turf wars!”