In the London parish, where I was born, baptised and ordained, lived a lady by the name of Mrs Trinder. There was a lot of sadness in her life – her daughter was continually ill, her son, a friend of mine, suffered a cerebral haemorrhage, which left him disabled, and she herself had a painful form of arthritis. When I was in training for the priesthood, she would usually give me a little money, each time I came home on holiday, which rather embarrassed me, but a friend of mine urged me to take it as she wanted “to help train one of God’s priests”. On the morning I left for the missions, I said Mass at my Parish church and she was among those, who came to say goodbye and as she shook my hand she told me that she followed the “Little Way of St. Therese” and made a morning offering each day for missionaries and added, “From now on, I will make it especially for you”. I thanked her and then went home to collect my luggage and on to the airport, where I travelled to Borneo – and I did not think about Mrs Trinder again until about two years later.
It happened at that time that I and another priest had to go to the next door parish to discuss the Iban prayer book we were trying to produce. There were no roads, in those days, so we travelled along the coast by boat and up the next river to the small town of Balingian, where we spent the night. The following day, we went further upriver by longboat to a Catholic longhouse, where we spent another night and then the next day we walked for seven hours to get to the river, where a boat was to be waiting for us to take us downstream to the mission – and, at that time, that was the nearest parish to us! That seven hour walk is one I shall never forget – we went uphill, down through swamp, up the next hill and down through swamp, up the following hill and again down through swamp. After four or five hours of this, I began to tire and as I did so I began to slip on the muddy hillsides and the more this happened the more tired I became, until I went over the top of a hill, slipped and fell to the bottom – and there I stayed, so exhausted I had no intention of ever moving again! I remember my catechist saying to me, “You can’t stay here, Father, there are leeches” and I remember seeing them crawling across the grass towards me. But I did not care if I died – I was not going anywhere!
I do not know how long I sat there, but there came into my mind the picture of Mrs Trinder and how each day she offered up all her difficulties for me and this somehow got me slowly to my feet. I looked up at the hill in front of me and I took one step and then another and another and another until we came to the longhouse, where the boatman was waiting for us and we could rest for a while, before setting off downriver.
When I returned to my mission station, a week or so later – by an easier route, this time – I decided to write to Mrs Trinder, tell her what had happened and thank her for her prayers and support. So I did, but a letter from her crossed mine in the post, the first she had ever sent me. It was written by her neighbour, who told me that she was writing on behalf of Mrs Trinder, because her arthritis was so bad she could no longer write. In that letter, she told me how Mrs Trinder had had a very vivid dream about me – that I had fallen into a deep pit and she had struggled to pull me out but could not do it – this, she wrote, had so upset Mrs Trinder that she had asked her to write to see if I was alright.
That experience of Mrs Trinder’s story intertwining with my own has given me a profound sense of wonder at the way God moves us together in mutual support. Whether we know it or not, we are all profoundly dependent on each other – and not one of us, not even the most charismatic, just “does his/her own thing” in God’s service – we do it together as a Church or we do not do it at all! The memory of that missionary journey that Mrs Trinder and I made together, across the muddy hills of Balingian, led me to ask the question – which of us had the missionary vocation? The answer, of course, must be that it had been given to both of us – we both crossed boundaries in our concern for the Gospel and it is this which distinguishes the missionary vocation.
Since that time, I have also come to realise more deeply still that while we speak as though there were “various” vocations, there is, in fact, only one fundamental vocation to which all of us are called: to answer the invitation of God by loving and caring together with Christ in his saving mission – and while we each do this in our own, unique way, we nevertheless do it together, because it is a sharing in the one mission of Christ.
But, then, why, when we speak, do we usually confine the term “vocation” to that of becoming a priest, sister, brother etc.? That is because we are confusing the basic call to loving service with the various forms that vocation takes in the community of the Church. Thus, when we speak about “vocation”, in this restricted way, we usually overlook the most common form of that vocation, as it is lived out among us: namely our families. Our families are the seed-beds of loving care – or should be – they are the places where all of us, priests, sisters and brothers as well, learn to love and to care. For we can only become loving people by being loved ourselves; become caring friends by being cared for by others; become understanding supportive companions, by being understood and supportive by others – and this usually happens to us, first of all, in and through our families. Thus, priests, sisters and brothers learn how to love through the love of their families and friends and it is this love which enables them, in answer to the call of God, to reach out to those who need help beyond that which the family can give.
These are the people in this world who, due to the brokenness of our world, are in need of love and care in special ways: the elderly, especially those, who live alone, the orphaned, the handicapped, the rejected, the unwanted and many others, who are in need of one sort of help or another. It is to these that the priests, sisters and brothers especially are sent, to draw them into family. It may be that the immediate problems of these needy ones cannot be “fixed”, but they can all be given something much more necessary – a smile and a loving touch that assures them that despite everything they are wanted and cherished. The “sin of the world” can be seen in those who live at the edges of our society: uncared for, unwanted and unredeemed from the lovelessness of the world. It is for such as these that Christ especially came and it to share in this task of his that Christ calls us all, each in our own way.
To return to the story where we began – this is not a story of strong people putting to rights the problems of the world, but a story of weakness – weakness, which is powerful in its helplessness. Our universal vocation needs to be understood in this way for only when we are weak and the challenges we face are beyond us are we able be open to Christ’s love and grace. So, we can understand our vocation as a call to be the “weak links” in the human chain, the places in the world, where the love of God can break through and transform the brokenness of our world through the caring service he inspires in us. It was my weakness on the Balingian hills, which made a place on that journey for Mrs Trinder, and it was her pain and weakness that she daily offered to the Lord that enabled her to share in my weakness and bring about, for me, a deeper understanding of how the Lord is at work in our world – and who the true missionaries are!.
Next weekend, here in Kuching, we are celebrating the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Mill Hill Missionaries. It is astonishing that a mere 15 years after that date that they arrived here in Borneo, in 1881, and have worked here continuously ever since. I believe that this is something worthwhile celebrating, so we will have an anniversary Mass at 5.30pm on Monday 2ndMay – and if you live in Kuching or nearby I would be very happy to see you there. The Mass will be celebrated by more than 70 priests and bishops and this will be followed by a fellowship buffet.
We have a small organisation, here in Kuching, called “The Mill Hill Family” and they are doing most of the work in preparation for the feast and also are helping raise money for the training of our ten Malaysian Mill Hill seminarians that the Lord has sent us. I have been off chemotherapy for month now and feel much better, but I still flag at times and so I am profoundly grateful to these and other friends for their help.
The day after the feast, 3rd May, I fly to the Philippines for a Mill Hill meeting, returning on 8thMay. Three days later, on 11th May, I go to UK for a four week holiday. I was telling a friend about my programme the other day and he said, “and I thought you were supposed to be on sick-leave!” Point taken! But I feel I need to get all these things done before I start chemo again at the end of June.