The Spiritual Father of our seminary, Rev Fr Ignatius Huan, was our Recollection Director and his first input on Friday evening was through the screening of a pretty old movie called “Shoes of the Fisherman”. This was my second time watching this movie but it certainly conjured in me many thoughts and emotions similar to that which it stirred in my heart the first time I watched the movie some years ago. The show is a fictional show about the life of an Eastern Bishop from Russia who had been in prison under the Communist government for over twenty years but was later released through the intervention of the Vatican and brought to Rome where he was made a Cardinal. Later on, much to his protest, he is elected Pope during a conclave.
The show had many beautiful moments that touched my heart and made me reflect quite a bit about my own life. It got me thinking so much that it kind of kept me up till quite late that night after the movie in prayer and reflection and the thoughts lingered on even on Saturday morning. I would like to share one of my significant reflections with all of you.
In the show, I saw many men in love; but it’s a different kind of love than what we often talk about or are familiar with. In fact, sometimes, we might even find it a bit uneasy if we heard someone say, “My priest is in love” because the first thing that would come to mind would be something improper. However, I dare to say that in the movie, what caught my attention was that some of the priests, Cardinals and the Pope himself were in love. They were madly and radically in love.
This was concretely expressed when a young priest who was close to the Cardinal before he became Pope and was a brilliant theologian but was under investigation by the Church because his theological opinions were not aligned to that of the Church’s traditional teachings. There was a real fraternal affection between the Pope and this young priest whom the Pope had asked to be his advisor. When the outcome of the commission of inquiry on his writings was finally submitted to the Pope, the Pope had the difficult task of ordering this young priest to be silent and to prohibit him from publishing his writings. There was an emotionally charged moment when the priest said something to the Pope that I personally find beautiful, “I hate the Church……and yet I love her. I want to leave her…..but I can’t live without her”. Though it may seem as if the young priest is speaking against the Church, I think there is so much that is deeper and worthy of reflection. What this young priest was feeling was the tension of true love that invites the other to die for love. In the face of his own self-surrender to the Church that seems to invite him to die, he feels the pain and what he may describe as “hate” but nevertheless, we can also see a man madly in love.
In the end, the young priest who was also suffering from a terminal illness humbly submits in obedience to the Church and he says that he has no bitter feelings. He dies soon after. What caught my attention was that he was a man truly in love and he was very aware of that.
Earlier on in the show, when the priest was talking with the Cardinal (before he became Pope) about his theological opinions, the Cardinal asked him why he remains a priest, and the young priest did not actually give an answer. I believe he gave the answer to that question later on in the words I have quoted above. Why did he become a priest? Why did he remain a priest? Why did he die a priest? I think he was in love. He had fallen in love and was falling more and more in love each day of his life as a priest.
This brings me to one of my reflections after the movie. When we speak of the priesthood and vocations, people tend to get a bit uptight and scared. When they talk about discernment, its as if God has something he has fated us for and we have to drag our feet to find out what it is and then to painstakingly respond to it out of fear that he will punish or something like that if we do not respond. I guess this seems to be the impression many young people have and so they would rather not even entertain the thought of the priesthood. I think that this has reduced the adventure of a life lived with God to something so sad and painful. How could a God whom we have come to know through the words of St John as, “God is Love” cause us to live a life without love and passion?
I am very convinced that becoming a priest is as much about falling in love as it is when a man gets married. The problem then arises – why are so few men falling in love with Christ and his Church? I must make a disclaimer here that it does not automatically mean that a person who falls in love with Christ and his Church must be called to the priesthood. There are certainly many wonderful lay people who love Christ and his Church deeply. Nevertheless, I am suggesting that falling madly in love with Christ and his Church is a distinct and necessary aspect of the vocation to the priesthood – it is after all symbolised as a marriage to the Church.
Over these two years of walking with my fellow brother aspirants, I have grown to get used to a good number of brother aspirants coming to share with me that they have “fallen in love”. And there is usually a glitter in their eyes and you know that there is a certain magic in the air. I am always happy for them and yet a nagging question arises in my mind. How come we seldom meet a man who tells us, “I am falling in love…..I am falling madly in love with the Church”. I am not saying that this never happens, but it is certainly not happening as frequently as we would hope for. Of course the truth is that a woman is a lot more tangible than the Church is in many ways and at times, I think a woman is a lot more passionate in getting the man she wants than the Church is, but still, it makes me wonder why is it that men are not falling in love with the Church?
One of my reflections on this is the fact that many lack exposure to the beauty of the Church – Christ’s Mystical Body. It’s kind of hard for a young man to accept being match-made in today’s age when affective love seems to be the normal development towards marriage. However, maybe that’s the problem with us in vocation promotion. Many men still enter discernment thinking of it somewhat like they are going to be match-made, except this time it would be by God, and they may silently resent that. The funny thing is that they forget that God is the greatest lover and relentless lover that ever existed so if he invites you to be priest, he is first inviting you to fall in love. I think that the men of today have not been sufficiently exposed to the beauty and attractiveness of the Church - the same beauty and attraction that has wooed so many hearts in the days of old. As St. Augustine himself once declared, “O beauty so ancient, O beauty yet so new”. I think we have to help men see this beauty that is so ancient and yet so new.
I certainly pray that more men are going to be falling in love with Jesus and his Mystical Body, the Church. I think we need passionate lovers of Christ and His Church in ministry today and certainly in the world of tomorrow. Many question the relevance of celibacy in the priesthood, but for me, this is a great sign of passionate love. As a priest, the man is declaring that he is so passionate and single-minded in his love that he does not take a wife for the Church is his wife. He has truly become configured to Christ in his spousal relationship with the Church that he freely lays down his life for her. When he repeats the words of Christ, “Take this all of you and eat it, for this is my body given up for you”, he does not only repeat it, he means it with his life.
I think many of us here in Kampung Punggol are falling in love. I pray that we shall be madly in love like that young priest in the movie by the time the Lord allows us to be ordained as his priests. That even in the face of challenging and painful moments in the priestly life, we shall bear it all for Love’s sake. I wish many of you would also start falling in love as we are. Please pray for more passionate Jesus-lovers and Church-lovers to come join us in Kampung Punggol. Love is certainly in the air here in Kampung Punggol. Praise be to God!