Earlier this week the sad news came to us of the death of a Passionist in England. I had first met this man, a Geordie, when we were both students and working together on a project for homeless men in Leeds. This was in 1977. I was in the early stages of formation, having joined the Passionists in 1975; he was in the later stages, due to be ordained in 1979, so he celebrated 40 years as a Passionist priest last year. Being from different parts of the Passionist world our paths did not cross a whole lot over the years, but occasionally they did.
Our paths crossed a few times in the early 1990’s when I was the novice master for the Passionists in North Europe and secretary to the North European Conference of Passionists, and this man was part of a group of Passionists in North Europe called Group 72. This name was taken from paragraph 72 in our Passionist Constitutions which talks about St. Paul of the Cross seeing the name of Jesus written on the foreheads of the poor, and therefore calling we Passionists to make our lives and apostolate an authentic and credible witness on behalf of justice and human dignity. In their own way of being true to this, some of Group 72 were living lives in the tradition of the worker priest movement. The worker priest movement began Belgium after the Second World War. It was a movement in which priests set aside traditional roles to take on ordinary jobs, so as to share the living conditions, and the social and economic problems of the poor, who were their co-workers. The man I am referring to was, at that time, working as a road sweeper in London. I remember sometime during that period, after the demise of apartheid in South Africa, watching a TV documentary about a network of people who had been working clandestinely to bring an end to apartheid. Every now and again there would be an image of a sweeping brush being pushed along the streets of London, and also the repeated image of the front door of a house. Towards the end of the documentary the camera was raised to reveal the face of my colleague who, it turned out, was a major part of this network, and the house, which was being used as a secure drop house for clandestine postal communication, was revealed to be the house that he shared with another Passionist priest, who at that time was working in a factory as a fork-lift driver.
I remember that one other member of Group 72, a French Passionist, was driving a refuse lorry in Paris as well as being the union rep for the lowest paid employees, and another, also a French Passionist, was working as a hospital orderly. The hospital orderly, a man of many gifts, would later be invited out to Rwanda as one of a group of facilitators trying to negotiate peace and reconciliation after the awful genocide of 1994. In more recent years, my Geordie colleague who died this week, became active in supporting people living with HIV and Aids. At a time of great fear and prejudice directed at people living with HIV and Aids; he was recognised as a powerful presence of solidarity and support for men and women living with the virus, offering pastoral support to them, and also to their friends and families.
While my own life and ministry as a Passionist took on a more traditional form, and while I sometimes had questions about these chosen lifestyles, at the same time I could see first-hand the utmost sincerity and dedication of these good men. Their commitment displayed a willingness to be vulnerable and to share the place of weakness with poor and suffering people; it often entailed a surrender of the comforts and securities that religious life can bring; and it would sometimes lead to personal hardships that were undertaken as an embracing of the cross, so as to be faithful to the Passionist mission, seeing the cross of Christ as a work of infinite love, especially towards the poor and the suffering, the crucified ones of today. This was their way of living that out and I admired them greatly for it.
So, well done good and faithful servant, you have laboured hard and your work is done; may your good deeds go with you, and may you enjoy your deserved rest in the Father’s house.