About a week or so ago, I began chatting online with a young man, who, I discovered, came from my first parish, Mukah. At first, I did not tell him I was a priest and teased him by talking to him in his own language, Melanau, which astonished him, because it is only spoken in that Parish – and also astonished me, because it is 34 years since I left Mukah. When, however, he told me that he was a Catholic, I told him I was a priest and asked his father’s name. The Melanaus use their own name and their father’s name, so when he told me his father’s name, I said that I did not remember his father, but I knew his grandfather.
The next day, he was back online, telling me that he had asked his family if they knew me and they told him they remembered me very well – and that when I left the parish, his grandfather had named one of his grandsons after me, ‘Terry’. I then told him that I was going to Mukah to see the parish priest and the following day, he was back online saying that his family wanted me to have a meal with them!
This has made me wonder why I am remembered with such affection after so many years. When I was appointed to Mukah, in 1971, my Bishop told me to learn the language of the upriver people, the Iban, but, I could not travel upriver all the time and so a lot of my time was spent at Mukah, among the Melanau. So, I learnt how to say Mass in Melanau and give a simple homily; I visited the kampongs, usually by boat – but once or twice, I remember walking through the mud to get there. I said Mass, baptised the children, visited the sick – nothing extraordinary. I also visited the people in their homes, with the catechist, trying to get to know them better – battling with both a language I hardly knew and my shyness as a young man – asking simple questions, such as, “How are the family?”, “How many children have you?” and then going home afterwards wondering whether I was wasting my time. So my memories are not of a glorious, skilful apostolate, but the bumblings of a young priest, trying to care for his people.
We sometimes think that it is what we do or say on such occasions that really matters, but, more and more, I see that it is the heart that wants to care, which is effective – even if you do not know what to say or do. St Vincent de Paul, the apostle of the poor, told a new Sister of Charity, just beginning her mission to the poor, “The poor are terrible masters, but you must love them. For only when you love them will they forgive you for the bread you give them to eat”. We can do such damage by putting good works or doctrines in place of that love, for it can hide the fact that the Gospel, the Good News, is showing people: “You are special, you are wanted, you are loved”. St. Francis had it right when he said, “Go out and preach the Good News with all your might – and if you have to, use words”.
So, maybe that young priest plodding through the mud to visit people he hardly knew and then, when he arrived, didn’t know what to say to them, was, in fact, doing a lot more than he knew. The people in that kampong, I last visited 34 years ago, seem to think so.
Fr Terry Burke