Some gave all

Many people do not understand that priests make more death bed visits than most doctors, and spend more hours counselling than the average psychologist. Those professionals are protected by labour laws and perhaps unions or associations. Our priests have only God.

Nov 10, 2023

The writer with her granduncle, the late Fr Ignatius Huan.

Word in progress - Karen-Michaela Tan

As I watched the tall figure in alb walk down the nave, I noted the Gaelic nose and knew we would probably have a guest celebrant that sunset Mass. After the opening prayer, my perplexed teen turned to me and whispered, “I have no idea what he is saying!” Our visiting priest had a thick accent, sounding exactly like a movie Frenchman, with his, “In zee nahme ouf zee fahzer,” and “our mutzher Mahree.”

The familiar accent transported me back decades to the cathedral, where a tall, imposing Frenchman with thick, black-rimmed glasses pastored the flock of St John’s. As a child, I was almost frightened of Fr Andrew Volle, but was also curious as to how different French men could be, as the congregation was also served by the small, almost gnome-like Fr Dubois, with his gin blossom nose and wispy blond-turned-to-white beard. Years in that parish accustomed me to the two disparate Europeans, and I grew to realise the big heart which resided in giant Fr Volle.

Fast forward a few years to the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Brickfields, I experienced first-hand the powerfully gentle ministry of a priest in persona Christi at the death bed of my grandmother, the first person close to me to die. India-hailing Jesuit priest, Fr Antoni Ponnudurai walked me through the broken window of life untouched by death, to the glaring reality of life filled with loss with a gentleness I will never forget, and which I have tried to bring to every deathbed that I have had the honour to pray beside.

Compared to Fr Ponnudurai’s evocative preaching, the homilies of the China-hailing Frs John Hsiong and Philip So at Holy Rosary had me squirming in the pew as a teenager. Yet, by then, I was already beginning to realise the sacrifices of these brave and obedient men of the cloth who left homes and nations to go where God said there was a need. This was further coupled by my granduncle Ignatius Huan’s acquiescence to the Almighty when, after being told he was too old for the Jesuits, decided he would help fill the need for diocesan priests, by becoming “Out of Order,” as he used to joke. He was over 40 years of age when he was ordained a Catholic priest. In his tireless years of service, he became a much sought-after spiritual adviser, retreat master and pilgrimage padre.

It was him that I would complain to whenever a priest with limited powers of oratory or pronunciation said Mass. And it was he who instilled in me the great debt Catholic Malaysia owes the nations who gave up their men for us.

As I smiled at the nasality of our visiting celebrant’s French-accented English, my thoughts also moved in the direction of gratitude to my Malaysian parish priest, who is possibly one of the best preacher-teachers I have had the pleasure of listening to. I also thought about how we lay people talk about the men in white who shepherd us.

As an avid study of personalities and people, I have often been told I hit the nail on the head when describing such and such a priest. Among my closer friends, these observations can turn a little unkind because I hold them up to such high personal expectations. As I smiled at the visiting celebrant looking towards his Malaysian brother priest for guidance through the Mass, I realised the great responsibility a priest bears.

Theirs is not only the obligation of celebrating Mass daily. They are proclaimers of the Word, and teachers. As shepherds, they guide and set an example of holiness to their flocks; and as ministers of God, they bring the Sacraments to us. Diocesan priests have the added responsibility of parish administration, toggling between comforting the bereaved and deciding whether a leaking roof or new toilets are more pressing for the parish. The minutiae of life as a parish administrator is hidden to most of the congregation to the point that we begin to resent or get angry when a priest is unable to do something requested of him. Many people do not understand that priests make more death bed visits than most doctors, and spend more hours counselling than the average psychologist. Those professionals are protected by labour laws and perhaps unions or associations. Our priests have only God.

Little wonder that these valiant men sometimes flag and falter. After a workday with an inept office worker that the priest doesn’t have the heart to sack, to the teetering pile of documents needing his signature, and blessings of cars, homes and hamsters (I kid you not!), our reverend fathers can just about say the Compline and roll into their beds before their cell phones go off, beseeching another death bed anointing. I know for a fact, one exhausted priest recorded himself saying “Wake up (his own name) someone is dying!” which he set as the ringtone on his phone from the hours between 1.00am and 5.00am.

It is so easy to forget that when our priests perform the gestures of the Mass, the ease of these movements have been born out of decades of continued service. It is also easy to believe that because they are God-called and chosen, that they are superhuman. While the office of priest is infused with supernatural strength (“my grace is sufficient for you (2 Corinthians 12:9)”, “my flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever (Psalm 73:26), they are still human, and sometimes even more so, as their vows of chastity, obedience and poverty strip them of much of the comforts of secular life.

In this regard, as sheep give their wool, milk and meat to their shepherds, so must the laity realise that there needs to be a crossflow of gifts between the shepherd and the shepherded.

(Karen-Michaela Tan is a poet, writer and editor who seeks out God’s presence in the human condition and looks for ways to put the Word of God into real action.)

Total Comments:0