Courage for Mission
A personal reflection for ‘The year of the Priest’
By Fr Peter Hung Tran
Whatever a person’s calling in life, inevitably there are moments that ask of them courage and perseverance. How many married people have had a moment when they felt like walking out and closing the door? How many parents raising demanding teenagers have felt unappreciated, a failure, and alone?
Missionaries have moments like that too. Sisters, priests and brothers sometimes feel on the outside, cut off from the people whom they serve. At some time most will feel alone or unappreciated. I know this because I too have felt it, at least sometimes.
I got thinking about such things when recently reading a work by Michel Quoist (1921-1997), a priest from Le Havre, France, and a writer of numerous books. The most popular of these was ‘Prayers of Life’ (1954)+ which has sold more than 2,500,000 copies.
I never met Quoist but I have been encouraged by his writings. I feel I know him through his words, and his words sometimes make me feel that he has known me.
Mostly these days a supportive community accompanies and assists us priests. People attend to big things like running the parish finances and to small things such as closing up the church after Mass on Sunday night. Sometimes the priest is left to do these things on his own. Take something as simple as closing the church on a Sunday night: with the congregation dispersed to their homes it can be a lonely moment for the priest, even if it is only transitory. Quoist says:
People ask a great deal of their priest, and they should. But they ought to also understand that it is not easy to be a priest. He has given himself in all the ardour of youth, yet he still remains a man, and every day the man in him tries to take back what he has surrendered. It is a continual struggle to remain completely at the service of Christ and of others.
A priest needs no praise or embarrassing gifts; what he needs is that those committed to his charge should, by loving their fellows more and more, prove to him that he has not given his life in vain. And as he remains a man, he may need once in a while, a delicate gesture of disinterested friendship … some Sunday night when he is alone.”
While reading the above lines, my thoughts were directed to my confreres currently scattered in their missionary work in different parts of the world. I became mindful of confreres from Australia, Vietnam, and other regions working hard to bring the Good News to the poor and disadvantaged, those forgotten by society and the Church.
They have not hesitated to learn local languages and travel long distances to reach the small villages in remote areas. I think of my Vietnamese confreres isolated on the borders of Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. They live in extremely poor circumstances and yet they still preach God’s Word enthusiastically. For them it is a Living Word - a word that brings new life, a word with power to transform cultures and lives.
Five years ago, in 2004, when I was serving in Vietnam, I accompanied the leader of the Australian Redemptorists to visit members of the Vietnamese Province at the missionary locations in the highlands of Bao Loc, Pleiku, Kontum and some other places. When we arrived at these centres, I was somewhat shocked and not a little surprised at what I saw. I began to wonder what had motivated these young Vietnamese Redemptorists to sacrifice many things in order to happily serve there.
When I was invited into their huts and saw with my own eyes their lodgings - bare and poor beyond imagination, I could not hold back my tears. Their bedrooms were furnished with a single mat on the floorboards and with an old pillow. Their offices were also very modest with some using their suitcases as work desks. Their food was meagre and commonly they had no rice to cook. They mostly ate sweet potatoes or corn given them by the villagers. Their remuneration was in bunches of bananas, gourds and pumpkins.
In spite of their poverty, a great joy emanated from them. There were smiles on their faces and they were happy most of the time. In giving their lives to love and serve the poor as well as those people shunned and rejected by society, these confreres seemed to have found their own joy.
I also began thinking of priests serving in the distant country dioceses of Australia. Some had spoken with me about their experiences of loneliness and isolation. Others revealed that they had to drive many hundreds of kilometres to celebrate Mass. They didn’t mind doing this even when there were just four or five people in attendance. Not unusually this would be repeated many times over a single weekend. However, the esteem, friendship and love of parishioners more than made up for the challenges at hand and the people became a source of support and understanding for these priests.
As a Redemptorist by contrast I live in community. Together we share many of our daily activities, both domestic and apostolic. This is a great help for me in my priestly life. I find support within the community both in good times and in bad. There too, when needed, I have someone in whom I can confide. I always have someone at my side.
Over the years 2005-2007, I served in a bustling Melbourne parish with large crowds coming to Mass each weekend. In that parish I learned a lot from the diocesan parish priest who was a dedicated and capable man. His joy and welcome touched his parishioners so that he rarely refused any request. God had blessed him abundantly.
My two years with this priest were special. We were close and always ready to share our daily tasks and burdens. We respected and reserved the necessary time for each other. I loved the Saturday and Sunday evenings when both of us were home after celebrating Eucharist and had closed-up the Church. We cooked, had dinner together and often opened a bottle of red wine to enjoy, because ‘good wine needs good company’. Sometimes during meals, we discussed the parish business or future programs and plans. Sometimes, we confided in each other and shared aspects of our lives and our missionary work.
I remember once when this priest was away on holidays for a month and I was left ministering in the parish by myself. When evening arrived, especially after celebrating Mass on Saturday nights, I would help a few parishioners close the Church before returning to the empty and quiet parish-house. On those occasions I would usually have dinner on my own and retire early to be ready for the next day’s Masses.
On one occasion I came down with a heavy cold and was sleepless and feverish. I felt weak and my voice had all but gone. Unable to find another priest for the Eucharists, I soldiered on and celebrated the next morning’s parish Masses. It was then I remembered fellow priests who were serving in isolated parishes and who had their own hardships to deal with. I felt a deeper than ever admiration for them and, though unwell, I felt too a joy in my own work.
After spending two years in this Melbourne parish, I understand much better the generosity of priests I have known. They continue to work hard, responding to their parishioners’ needs – baptisms, weddings, and funerals. They readily take on leadership roles – pastor, counsellor, advocate, mediator, and peacemaker. And sometimes they absorb into themselves the frustrations of the community. When this happens they are sharing the life of the crucified one who absorbed the violence of the world so that the world might be at peace.
And so I end where I started with these words from Michel Quoist.
People ask a great deal of their priest, and they should. But they ought to also understand that it is not easy to be a priest. He has given himself in all the ardour of youth, yet he still remains a man, and every day the man in him tries to take back what he has surrendered. It is a continual struggle to remain completely at the service of Christ and of others.”
- Father Peter Hung Tran is a Redemptorist priest in Australia. Currently he is working as a consultant with the L.J. Goody Bioethics Centre in Perth, WA, Australia.
- The ‘Year of the Priest’ begins June 19, 2009, the feast of St. John Vianney.
- Michel Quoist, Prayers of Life (Dublin: Gill and MacMillan Ltd, 1963).