Ten years ago I was appointed to St Jude Church, Malad East as priest-in-charge of a parish with a congregation that now stands at 799 souls. These have been the best ten years of my pastoral ministry spanning twenty years; years of truly living the faith among a faith filled people.
Faith is not something that we in the Catholic Church are called to ‘sell’, it is something that we are called to live. You can’t just preach it from the pulpit, for conversion does not take place with mere words as much as it does when the heart encounters a life lived in faith.
Bloom where you are planted is easier said than done especially when our Church till a year ago was all of 1200 square feet in size, no rest room, a desk for an office, where three pews serve as a class room for catechesis and were neighbours of other faiths take umbrage that you run a Church on the ground floor of a residential building (I quite understand their annoyance).
St Jude’s parish is no walk in the park; geographically it encompasses a large area though the Catholic faithful are few. Poverty is a way of life for most people and job opportunities are hard to come by. A devout congregation such as this has to often make a hard choice between attending a Sunday mass or earning bread for the family. There are challenges galore but here live a people of faith who don’t ask God to reduce the conflict they face, as much as they ask him to increase their courage. In this parish, I have been blessed to minister.
The feast of St John Vianney cannot be an exclusive celebration for the priest, for without those entrusted to his care what priesthood would he have? And so I share the joy of this feast day with my people of St Jude’s family (we don’t call ourselves a parish for we live the bonds of a family) and in these days with the entire online Church that joins me for daily and Sunday mass.
I share it with a faith filled people who accept the priest they get with his strengths and failings and don’t get to pick and choose the priest they want. I share it with a family that welcomes us priests into their hearts and homes, often sacrificing much more than the ‘sacrifices’ that the priest is called to make. I share it with friends who slip their arm around you, comforting you when in pain and shielding you from attack when in fact that is what the priest as shepherd is called to do.
The feast of St John Vianney is not about the kind words and gestures that are offered as much as it is a reminder to the clergy what we willingly enrolled for. It is a day when we are called to recall the life of our patron St John Vianney who in that tiny and obscure village of Ars in France, dedicated his life to God and His people.
Yet there were moments of doubt even for a saint like him. On first seeing the tiny village of Ars where he would remain for the rest of his life we note a certain disappointment in his words: “how small this is” for Ars had a total population of just 230 souls. Yet his prayer was “Lord, grant me the conversion of my parish; I am willing to suffer whatever you wish, for my entire life.” God answered that prayer and gave the radical conversion of that parish and hundreds of thousands eventually journeyed to that tiny place on earth.
John Vianney shunned earthly honours calling them ‘toys’. To all who came to see ‘him’ he would point to the Altar and Tabernacle saying: “He is here, He is here, the One who loves us so much He is here!”
I often say to my congregation, I am not here to entertain you and be your organiser of events, I am here to struggle with you as we make our way to heaven. I have often questioned my heart when people speak of a vibrant parish as one that has a lot of activity but no active faith. St John Vianney saw the dangers of the demands of lay people and the desire of the clergy to please them. He said, and I quote, “a priest goes to heaven or a priest goes to hell with a thousand people behind him”
To my people of St Jude Church and all of you who join us for our online mass; you who constantly make me a better man and a better priest, I offer my prayer of thanksgiving on the feast of our patron John Marie Vianney in the words of St Paul. ” I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all, making my prayer with joy, thankful for your partnership in the Gospel from the first day until now. And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” – Philippians 1:3-6
Fr Warner D’Souza