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Last 23 April 2012, Fr Mel Loftus OSM celebrated his 50th anniversary of ordination.
At the end of Mass he addressed us with these words...
One advantage of aging is that one's long term memory remains alive and well. Today my mind goes back to Manzini, Swaziland and the Episcopal Silver Jubilee of Bishop Costanzo Barneschi in 1965.. The after dinner speaker was Fr. Eugene Morgan, OSM and the theme of his tribute to Bishop Barneschi was: "A man is known by the company he keeps." If you want to know who I am you need to know the company I keep. If you want to know who I have been over the past 50 years of priesthood, well ask these invited guests present here today: fellow Servites, priests and religious and laity, because you are the company I have been keeping over the ears. Each one of you in one way or another has played a role in my life or touched me in a particular way.
ORDINATION AND PRIESTHOOD
This Jubilee has almost crept up me unawares. I almost have to pinch myself to realize that this is really happening. It reminds me a bit like my priestly ordination itself. Back in Rome in1962 I was in the final throes of my theological studies and taken up with preparing for final exams, thesis etc. Then there was Lent, Holy Week and Easter with all the liturgical services. Then on Easter Monday morning nine of us Servites from five different nations, processed into the sanctuary of San Marcello church for our ordination service. I was in a bit of a daze but it was when we were prostrate before the high altar for the Litany of the Saints, that it finally struck home to me: "This is it. There's no going back or pulling out now." Then I was caught up in the ebb and flow of the ordination service, the anointings, presentation with the instruments of the priesthood, the concelebration with Cardinal Traglia (Vicar of Rome) and our Prior General. Before I knew it we were back in the sacristy lining up for photos with the Cardinal. I remember how proud my father and mother were to be photographed with a real Cardinal!
And then there was that awesome moment when my father and mother knelt down before me and asked for my blessing. It was a real tribute to their respect for the priesthood. Later that summer, the President of Ireland, Eamon De Valera received us at his official residence and he too asked me for my blessing and knelt down before. I then knew that, no matter how normal I would like to be, there definitely was a difference. Again the question arose: "Is this really happening to me?" Yes, it was and for a reason. God in His infinite wisdom called me out from among my high school friends and fellow students and ordained me for the things which pertain to God.
FIRST ASSIGNMENT AND MISSION
During my third year of theology I had volunteered to work in the Zululand Missions. It was not to be so because the Apartheid government refused me a visa. So my first assignment was to Our Lady of Sorrows community, Chicago. I spent my first year teaching in St. Philip's High School and did pastoral work among Afro Americans and Spanish speaking Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. Then out of the blue came my visa in early 1964. I arrived in Zululand in April, 1964 and my first assignment was to Ingwavuma. There I commenced studying Zulu at the "feet of the master", none other than D.D. himself. Since he was on his own, classes took place in the evenings and the whole day was devoted to study. I had the whole house to myself all day. In the afternoons some school girls came in to work in the sacristy. My room was next to the sacristy and I used to practice pronouncing Zulu words out loud. This was met by howls of laughter and girlish giggling from the sacristy. One of the culprits is here today, L. Mngomezulu (stand up).
Of course in those early days a smattering of the language was not much good to you. You had to get out among the people. But you needed a guide and confidant who would introduce you to the people and also interpret their wishes and needs. I was particularly blessed to work with some wonderful men, our catechists: I recall Michael Mthethwa., Augustine Mhlongo, Johannes Mhlongo, Patrick Kunene - all who have gone to their reward. Some are still with us: the Mkhizes upper and lower, Ngubane and Nkosi. (Sukumani madoda!) Later in 1972 we started a small school for catechists at Ubombo. I think I learned more than the catechists did. These men taught me so much about the lives and customs of the people. They were patient with my mistakes and impetuosity but were not afraid to correct me when I made mistakes.
Much though I loved pastoral work I was thrown, totally unprepared into the world of formation in 1967, when I was appointed Novice Master. Over the next two years I had two novices in my care. One is with us today: Fr. Raphael Mahlangu. I was later to do formation studies in 1987 and returned to the formation field from 1990 until 1998. This time, I was much better prepared for the plunge into formation. Among those who I worked with are Frs. Mafanisa Mthembu, Clement Langa, Thulani Ntsele. My formation studies were of a great help to me also in accompanying our diocesan candidates: Frs. S. R. Mthembu, Vukani Phoseka and Dominic Mhlongo.
It was mainly through my involvement in formation that I was able to collaborate with a number of sisters' congregations, the Servite Sisters of Swaziland, the Servite Mantellate Sisters and the Oakford Dominicans. You are very welcome here today.
Over the years, apart from assignments to various missions in Zululand (I enjoyed immensely each mission but the most demanding was Ubombo), I had a number of very formative experiences.
In 1975 with funding from Misereor I was able to spend three months in our Servite missions in the Amazon area of Brazil. There I studied and experienced Basic Christian Communities in the Vicariate of Acre Purus. This was a huge learning experience for me because it taught me two things: the immense role laity can play in the work of the church when given some training and encouragement; you can accomplish a lot with simple structures.
The Amazon experience was a good foundation for my involvement in the lay ministry training programmes organized by Bishops Lobinger and Hirmer under the auspices of the SACBC. I remember attending the inaugural meeting at St. John Vianney Seminary in Pretoria which led up to he first Interdiocesan Pastoral Consultation in1980 and which laid the groundwork for the Pastoral Plan Community Serving Humanity. Over the following years we attended the annual ministry workshops at Lumku Pastoral Institute.
In 1978, Fr. Bernard Thorne, OSM, introduced Marriage Encounter movement to S. Africa. Eventually many Servites and lay people from our area did week-ends. I was completely convinced of the power of the Catholic family, as a unit, to transform society and the church. Over the next ten years I formed part of the team giving week-ends in English and Zulu. I was privileged to work with that great pioneering couple, Martin and Margaret Khumalo. I am happy that ME is alive and well in our area and hopefully we will soon be able to run week-ends here.
Sickness is a very formative event. When I was felled by sickness in Chicago back in the year 2000 I entered a school I was very much unprepared for: a school of pain, helplessness, dependency and loneliness. When you are sick you spend long hours on your own. It gives you a great opportunity to review your life and to accept two great facts: nobody is indispensable and we are all limited human beings. It is only one's faith, prayer and the grace of God that keeps you going.
As I shared recently with Mafanisa, when you have been to the edge of the precipice and looked over, life can no longer be the same. Those six months of convalescence taught me how to accept weakness and to understand suffering. It was a great help when I was asked to get involved in the AIDS ministry. As St. Paul puts it so well: "When I am weak then I am the strongest of all."
A time of Jubilee is a time for rejoicing and thanksgiving. Firstly, I am thankful to God who called me when I was not such promising raw material for the priesthood I try to thank him every day. I am also grateful to our Mother Mary who wished that I be one of her servants and from whom "we draw abiding inspiration as a Mother and Servant of the Lord." (OSM Const. 1). Each and every jubilarian has his/her own reasons for being thankful. In the hope of not leaving out certain people:
1. I thank my family extended throughout the world: Ireland, USA, Australia and even Barcellona. My family has always been a source of support and encouragement for me. My family has been the foundation on which my vocation was built and has always been interested in my mission and supported it materially.
2. The Servite Order - my family of adoption. I have always felt at home in the Servite Order. I have always felt supported. Whatever education I have or modest accomplishments attained are due to the Servites. What I admire most in our Order is its modesty or what some call the "common touch." Lay people often recognize this quality in us more readily than we do ourselves. Where does this come from? Yes, we could say our charisms of community, service and compassion. I remember years back at the end of our annual retreat in Glenmore Durban, the Salesian preacher, Jim Kilcullen, in expressing his thanks said: "I will now pay you the highest compliment possible: You are the image of your mother." It may sound a bit corny but maybe he hit the nail on the head.
3. Role Models or Mentors: I believe that one can only persevere faithfully in one's vocation when apart from formative experiences one is lucky to have good role models. Our Easter liturgies repeat a number of times the phrase: "You will be my witnesses." As a Chilean theologian once told us: "Witness is not just giving good example, it is mirroring Christ to others by the lives we live. So the focus is on Christ and not on ourselves."
So here are some people who influenced my life: My cousin Joe Loftus the first Servite I met. My own father, who was a freedom fighter, was interned and did a 30 day hunger strike - so ruining his digestive system for the rest of his life. Servites like Vicenzo Buffon, Aldo Lazzarin, Moacyr Grechi, Hubert Moons. Here is Zululand, Bishop Michael O'Shea, Malachy Skelton and Al Mooney. In Mozambique David Vaquer of happy memory and Manolo Fontanet. In Swaziland, Bishop Zwane and Augustine Magongo.
The Zulu People: One can't have ministered to people without forming strong bonds of friendship and affection. In spite of vast cultural differences, you accepted and adopted us "warts and all." It was not so much for who we are but for what we represented as Evangelizers, ministers and shepherds. You continue to pay us the highest compliment by confiding in us. I often sit and reflect after a particularly deep and moving sharing how one could do that with one who is so obviously "foreign."
There can be only one reason: the Grace of God - that Amazing Grace.
From all that I have said it must appear to you that my journey of 50 years of priesthood was a like "a walk in the park." Of course there were clouds and shadows - even an occasional cyclone! - but today I would rather dwell on the positives. I would rather share with you what sustained me in moments of "trials and tribulations." Firstly, it was a strategy learned from the Good Shepherd himself: to begin my day "by going apart to a quiet place" to be alone with God. In that way I learned to structure my day on a foundation of tranquility - that inner sea of tranquility. Mind you it was not always that way - I used to start the day by listening to the radio! Also when all was not going well, when facing frustrations in my ministry or projects I was sustained by sayings from Pope John's Journal of the Soul: Voluntas Dei - Pax mea! - the will of God is my Peace. And another: "I see my life as the work of the ants and the work of the bees." I think what he meant was that it is the cumulative effect of many small and seemingly insignificant actions which eventually produce results. And finally there is the Prayer of Serenity:
"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change.
To change the things I an
And the wisdom to know the difference."
Since a Golden Jubilee is a celebration of priesthood - not just yours or mine, but Christ's priesthood, let me leave you with this reflection from Karl Rahner:
"My dear friends accept us as we are. The priest is not an angel sent from heaven. He is a man, chosen from among men, a member of the Church a Christian. Remaining man and Christian, he begins to speak to you the Word of God. The Word is not his own: he speaks it because God has told him to proclaim his Word. Perhaps he has not entirely understood it himself, perhaps he adulterates it, but he believes, and despite his fears, he knows that he must communicate God's word to you. For must not some one of us say something about God, about eternal life, about the majesty of grace in our sanctified being; must not some one of us speak of sine and of the judgment and mercy of God? So, my dear friends, pray for us, carry us, so that we might be able to sustain others by bringing them to the mystery of God's love revealed in Christ Jesus our Lord."
Thank you for coming and for being companions on my journey.