Grateful to God, I recently celebrated the golden jubilee of missionary priesthood on Saturday 9th July and have been kindly reminded, in a congratulatory letter from the General Council, of what I have officially been doing over these years in our Society. But I can’t help wondering if what I was commended for would also be endorsed by God who alone knows how far any of us have really responded over all these years to the graces of the Holy Spirit which were offered to us in order to become channels of His mercy and love for the people we were sent to serve in various parts of the world. But what are fifty years of service in God’s sight ? We pray in the words of Psalm 89(90), ‘O Lord…to your eyes a thousand years are like yesterday, come and gone, no more than a watch in the night…Make us know the shortness of our life that we may gain wisdom of heart.’
The length of Christ’s public missionary life, like that of half of my original twenty-one classmates, was considerably less than fifty years. But short, like small, may, indeed, be beautiful!
When I began my formation for the missionary life and discovered how long it would be before I could begin serving in one of our missions, I honestly thought I would not have the strength to persevere through all those long years of study (and we had no overseas Mission Experience in those pre-Vatican II days). But then I happened to read a line from a poem of John Keats :
‘Stop and Consider! Life is but a day;
a fragile dew-drop of its perilious way
from a tree’s summit. ’
(Sleep and Poetry)
– an echo of what Christ teaches us in the Gospel :‘Do not worry about tomorrow; tomorrow will take care of itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.’(Matthew 6:34), which I had overlooked. I suddenly realised that we do not have to slog painfully through weary weeks, months or years but can skip along one manageable day at a time. Life is, indeed, one day: in fact, just the fleeting present moment. Recollection of the past is in our memory and the future is only in our imagination and this is not reality yet, only the present time is. So, ‘One day at a time, sweet Jesus…’ became a helpful prayer! The weeks, months and years then flew by, as they continue to do, one day at a time!
Gottfried Möltner mhm
But I must honestly admit that I would not be writing this as an MHM priest today if I had not spent the last four years of my formation with Gottfried Möltner, my Tyrolese classmate, and learnt so much from him especially when hitch-hiking with him through France to Lourdes, during the summer of 1965, the year before our ordination to the priesthood, to do three weeks of voluntary service with him at the Cité Saint Pierre of Secours Catholique- known as the City of the Poor – designed to be a reminder of God’s preferential option for the poor : for it provides, with the help of voluntary workers, free board and lodging for poor pilgrims on the recommendation of their parish priest through their diocesan Caritas Office.
We had managed, with our meagre funds (there were no student allowances in those days!) to get a cheap student flight from the south of England to Beauvais airport north of Paris and then ‘thumbed’ our way from there over the next few days to Lourdes, even shamelessly donning our cassocks and red sashes if, after a long wait, we had not managed to get a lift. But during those times of waiting by the road and later in Lourdes and Mill Hill, Gottfried had pearls of missionary spirituality to share in his gentle and humble way. Every night, we were grateful to find priests, in surprisingly poor presbyteries, or ‘Good Samaritan’ laypeople, ready to give us shelter. Our final lift, not far from Lourdes, was like a minor miracle for it was with Monseigneur Rodhain who, as the Secretary General of Secours Catholique, had been asked in 1955 by the Bishop of Tarbes and Lourdes to establish a place where poor pilgrims could be accommodated free for a few days. He was on his way that morning to where he had established himself in an idyllic spot on a hill above Our Lady’s Shrine in Lourdes, to begin his day’s work there and took us along.
At the end of our ministry in Lourdes, we each hitch-hiked most of the way to our respective home countries. But Gottfried first went to Ars to spend time where the famous saintly Curé had served. Back after the summer in St Joseph’s College, Mill Hill, London, Gottfried asked me to go with him to the public baths to teach him how to swim as he rightly considered this skill might be needed in his missionary life. He succeeded in learning to swim fairly well in the placid waters of the baths, but evidently the strong waves of the Pacific Ocean, with its dangerous currents, off the shore of Chile on a fateful day almost two years later (26th February 1968), must have overwhelmed him for he had never had any experience of swimming in the sea. He disappeared in the frothing waters. Lifeguards had immediately searched for him and an official search was conducted for some days, even further up the coast in the direction of the ocean currents, but his body was never found.
Fr. Vincent McCann, the leader of the small MHM team that had been sent to Santiago de Chile to begin a new Mill Hill Mission there, wrote a letter to Fr. Senders of the General Council the evening Gottfried had disappeared in the sea and was presumed drowned, He explained how he, Godfrey (using his Anglicized name), their housekeeper and her two sons had gone to the coast for a rare day out. On the beach, Gottfried and the two boys (one was a seminarian) began kicking and throwing a ball around. Later, around midday, Godfrey announced that he was going to have a swim. Vincent decided to join him and went up the shore to get his swimming trunks from the truck they had brought. Godfrey was already up to his waist in the frothy water with large waves a little ahead of him. Vincent was just putting on his swimming trunks when one of the boys came rushing frantically to him to tell him that Gottfried had disappeared in the sea. He rushed down to the water’s edge where a small crowd had gathered. All were screaming and pointing in various directions. Their housekeeper had thoughtfully alerted two lifeguards who began searching for him.
In this letter to Fr. Senders Fr.Vincent wrote,
‘You will know from my correspondence with Father General and especially from my most recent letter of last week, what a wonderful young priest I considered Godfrey.
I know I am somewhat upset at the moment, but it is not emotion when I say that I have never known a holier or more devoted priest than Godfrey, because I have said it so often and to so many. No one I have met before had such a sincere love of the Scriptures as he did nor tried to live them more than he did. His Bible was his constant companion and it was the first piece of luggage he put in his suitcase when he went for a trip recently to the South of Chile. In just over a week, Godfrey would have been with us just one year, but in that short time he had become a master of Spanish (he had, prior to his arrival, spent a few months doing a language course in Lima, Peru. He also had the advantage, of course, of already knowing Italian-JT) and had endeared himself to all by his complete sincerity, love of the poor and of the young people in the parish. I can just imagine the broken hearted grief of the people now as they will have heard the terrible news. The people simply loved him…’
Later, in the Millhilliana (discontinued in 1984), nr. 3, 1968 pp127-130, Fr. Vincent wrote about the character and missionary service of Godfrey, the details of which may still encourage us to imitate his style in the short or long span of our missionary
‘Perhaps those who knew Godfrey the Student will nod and say: “Yes we know what you mean.” He was a most gentle, humble and lovable young priest. His work in the parish was magnificent. He had got to know everyone, young and old and especially the sick and the poorest of the poor and he was loved by each and everyone of them. His work with the children and the catechists could not have been bettered by anyone, anywhere.
You must not imagine that the Parroquia Santa Lucrecia is a parish of neat, white, thatched cottages, golden sands and waving palm trees with people all eager to receive Christ’s message. There are palm trees, but they grow out of the garbage that litters the streets and their growth is stunted by the pall of industrial smog which hangs over this end of the city. Hemmed in by the city’s Slaughter House, the city’s Prison, the city’s Race Track and the city’s largest Military Post and Munitions Factory, this is a difficult parish in a difficult area and especially difficult for the young people in their late teens and early twenties. Among these young folk Godfrey did a work which I consider, without any intention of disrespect, could only have been bettered by Our Lord Himself, so wonderful was his approach to them and so great the love and respect he received in return.
Godfrey had a tremendous love for the word of God. His Bible was his constant companion. Busy as he was all day and tired as he might have been at night, he never lay down to sleep without first reading his Bible for a full half hour and this in addition to his Breviary. Apart from this one fateful day, Godfrey’s normal manner of taking free time was to visit some of the more difficult “cases” in the parish, then on to some other parish in the city to learn their approach to the problem of the Church in the Modern World and thence on to the Andes Mountains which ring the city and there, Bible in hand, to meditate on the beauties of Nature and God’s love for mankind.
His sermons were always a thing of beauty; so instructive and so full of the love of God. I can remember almost every word of his last sermon, Sunday February 25 (1968) at the 7.30 p.m. Mass, the evening before he died. He spoke so beautifully of Christ’s invitation to us “ to go up the House of the Lord”. I am sure I shall never forget his final sentence,
“Vamos a la casa del Señor? Si, vamos…” (Let’s go to the House of the Lord then, shall we?…..Yes, let’s go….).
And with that he turned back to the altar to continue the Mass. Thinking back, it appears just as if he had a presentiment of Our Lord’s invitation to join him in His House and that he accepted it with joy and alacrity and that this was both his farewell message and his excuse for leaving us so suddenly and so soon.
How he might better himself and how he might improve his knowledge and understanding of the Chilean people was Godfrey’s only preoccupation. For this reason, whenever the Soviet Embassy put on a programme, Godfrey would attend so as to be able to understand the Chilean Communists the better; whenever the Planned Parenthood Association of Santiago gave a talk, Godfrey would be present to hear it so as to understand better the problems of the parents in our parish; whenever the “Hippies” of the city had a “sit-in”, Godfrey would take a keen interest so as to know what it was that made the youth of our parish “tick”; whenever there arrived in Santiago an Abbé Houtart, an Ives Congar or a Barnabas Aherne to deliver a series of lectures on modern scriptural or theological trends, Godfrey would be sure to assist. Visiting prisoners in our jail was for him a recreation; extra courses in Catechetics a diversion; rubbing elbows with the cheats and thieves of our local market – a market which would make Petticoat Lane blush for shame – was for him just another way of getting to know one more section of the parish…
As a student of soccer of long standing, I always suspected that Godfrey would never have won a place on an International team, but whenever there was a game of note at the National Stadium, Godfrey would take a group of youngsters from the parish to help with the cheering. Godfrey did go to the Cinema occasionally but it was more out of a sense of duty than anything else; either to take the acolytes as a treat or to accompany a fellow priest who might be looking for someone to go with him..…Godfrey never missed a Baptism nor a Wedding Fiesta and this sometimes meant his attending, for a few minutes, as many as ten fiestas on one night. It was not that Godfrey like fiestas; it was that in this way he could have contact with people who sometimes had never met a priest since the day of their own baptismal fiesta and also to be able to tread even more closely in the footsteps of the Divine Wedding Guest of Cana of Galilee.
Godfrey was very much alive to the need for the spirit of Ecumenism in Latin America and did all he could to foster it. The local Pentecostal Minister was his friend and how well I remember Godfrey scampering back to the parish to concelebrate Midnight Mass with us on Christmas Night after first attending the Nativity Play in the Pentecostal Temple. He admired the groups of Evangelicals who had the faith and courage to preach, pray and sing at the various street corners of the parish and Godfrey would sometimes be found there, an audience of one, just to encourage them in their efforts to spread the Christian message (Godfrey had also written about this to me in a 1967 Christmas letter -JT). Our Jewish brethren were special friends of his and the only time he was ever absent from the community table, was to break bread with a Jewish family on the occasion of one of their religious feasts. Yes, if ever there was a man for all Seasons, a man who tried to make himself all things to all men that he might win all men for Christ, that man was Godfrey…
For his vacation, Godfrey took a trip down South. In fact you cannot go any further South than he did without bumping into the South Pole. He went as far as Tierra del Fuego and did it from our front door, all by hitchhiking…..
(He later) assured us that he had prayed and meditated much during his vacation and had begged God to let him always work and die here in Chile…I am sure that (in just one year) that he did more in his short time with us than most of us will do in a full life time…
The relentless seas are his only grave, the cries of the gulls his Requiem, the Rocks of Santo Domingo his only monument’. (end of quote)
Gottfried had a great admiration for the lifestyle of the Little Brothers of Jesus and I was most grateful that he had introduced me, during my student days, to the life and writings of Charles de Foucauld, especially his Prayer of Abandonment. This prayer, as perhaps others have discovered, can help one calmly to face each day with hope and confidence in God the Father’s loving care, accepting His Will, free from worry about tomorrow, just as Christ invited us to do (Matthew 6:34). Rather than fearfully imagining a long and difficult future ahead of us, it is better to accept the ‘sacrament of the present moment’ and live one day at a time. Later, we can, of course, gratefully and joyfully recall so many yesterdays we have passed through relying daily on the faithful presence and supportive companionship of the Risen Christ encountered in so many inspiring and ‘grace-ful’ people like I did in Gottfried Möltner who, as only God knows, apparently achieved so much in such a short time!
John Taylor mhm