My journey from Gethsemane Friary to Sibu

In May this year, I celebrated 33 years of my priestly ministry, and while each year is marked with a Mass of thanksgiving, this year, due to the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, I have had more time to reflect and reminisce about my journey as a priest.

Aug 20, 2021

By Fr Rawi Alexander OFM, Cap
In May this year, I celebrated 33 years of my priestly ministry, and while each year is marked with a Mass of thanksgiving, this year, due to the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns, I have had more time to reflect and reminisce about my journey as a priest.

Although many years have passed, I can still remember vividly the immense joy I felt when making my solemn profession as a Capuchin Friar on November 3, 1987 at the Church of St Francis of Assisi (SFA) in Cheras. This joy flowed over to the next day when I was ordained a deacon by Most Rev Anthony Soter Fernandez, Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur. One rookie mistake I made at that time was giving the ‘kiss of peace’ to the concelebrants at the Mass. Archbishop Soter, in his fatherly wisdom, corrected me later on in private, saying that a deacon could only offer the ‘kiss of peace’ to another deacon at a diaconate and not to the clergy.

My ordination took place on May 18, 1988 at my hometown parish, Church of Our Lady of Lourdes in Ipoh, with Bishop Antony Selvanayagam as the ordaining prelate. Upon my return to Gethsemane Friary in Cheras where I lived with the Capuchin community, I continued assisting at SFA until 11 months after my ordination, when Archbishop Soter appointed me as its parish priest. I was not even one year into my priesthood and had been given the responsibility of running a parish. I do admit that I was initially apprehensive – having had no experience or any form of training in how to manage a parish. Fortunately, there were many parishioners who came to my aid and journeyed with me. One of the difficulties we face as parish priests is that we are not able to please everyone. Nevertheless, despite the many challenges I had to face, I was happy.

After eight years in the parish, I wanted to further my studies and although my preference was to study in the US, my community sent me to the Philippines instead, to do a short course with the Cenacle sisters. Upon my return, I was posted to St Pio's Spirituality Centre, Ulu Tiram, Johor. In 1998, I did a one-year sabbatical in the US and felt enriched by the different cultural experience and through living in community with the Friars there. Upon my return, Bishop James Chan first asked me to serve at the Church of the Immaculate Conception in Johor, and later as parish priest at the Church of the Holy Family in Ulu Tiram. During my years in the Malacca Johore Diocese, I was fortunate to have travelled and celebrated Mass in almost all the churches in the state of Johor where I met many wonderful people.

In 2010, I returned to Kuala Lumpur and once again assisted at SFA. In 2013, I was asked to work in Sibu, Sarawak, where I was warmly welcomed by Bishop Joseph Hii and where I am still based. I am not assigned to any particular parish, but assist in celebrating Mass in some of the churches and longhouses.

In Sibu the main language is Iban, and I had to learn to speak the language when I first came. It is not a difficult language to learn for a person familiar with Malay, as it is mixed with a lot of Bahasa Malaysia words, and with the help of a teacher, Mr Jimmy, I was soon able to master the language. To cater to the different groups here, I also celebrate Mass in English, Mandarin and Bahasa Indonesia.

I have been given various responsibilities here, some of which include overseeing the BECs, doing home visitations and celebrating Mass for the BECs. I am also the Spiritual Adviser for the Marriage Discernment Weekend (a programme for couples planning to get married) and the Family Life Ministry. I am assisted in both these ministries by dedicated lay faithful.

I am also serving the Indonesian Catholics in the palm oil plantations where I celebrate Mass once a month. Travelling from Sibu to the outskirts takes hours but it is an enjoyable journey. The scenery is lovely, with greenery everywhere, and the people are warm and welcoming and always show their hospitality by providing a good meal each time I visit.

I cover many parishes as far as Mukah and Dalat where I celebrate Mass in Bahasa because there are many Melanau and indigenous people who do not speak Iban. I travelled a lot until the breakout of the COVID pandemic which has disrupted most of the church services and activities.

Some of the places in Sibu are not accessible by road so I have had to travel by boat for three hours. I remember one day I was travelling by boat and it started to rain heavily and I was soaking wet. I reached the longhouse and quickly dried myself before celebrating Mass for the community which had been waiting patiently for my arrival. For those living in rural areas, it is difficult to come out to the city to attend Mass in the churches here due to the distance and the different working hours they practice. So, for such communities, Mass is celebrated in the mornings on a weekday. Other places I have visited include Kapit and Pella, both accessible by a three-hour boat ride.

The faith of the Catholic community in Sibu is very strong. For them, reciting the rosary is very important. Many of them travel for miles in a boat just to attend church services and I can’t help but compare how fortunate people in the Peninsular are, with so many churches within easy access. It’s been eight years now since I started my ministry in Sibu and it has been a time filled with fantastic experiences. Personally, I have grown in my faith and have a deeper spirituality thanks to the strong faith that I see in these people whom I have come to love and serve over the years.

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K David Raja SCC skudai j
May God bless you always