Slow Learner

By Fr Neil Collins MSSC

“Young people today find it very difficult to make a permanent commitment.”  I’ve heard this many times in recent years, and to some extent I can understand what they mean, because of my own mixed-up history. Many years ago I became a priest, then left the priesthood, and heard God’s call again.

One of the big influences in my vocation was my Uncle James.  He was a Columban missionary in China while I was growing up in Ireland.  Travel was impossible during the Japanese War so he couldn’t come home.  I think we had only one or two letters in all those years.  But we read aboutChina in the Columban’s “Far East” magazine, and we prayed for him every night.  My imagination did the rest.  For some reason I always imagined him, a heroic figure, walking along a narrow path through the rice fields.  Then in 1948 he came home, and he was as wonderful as I’d imagined, full of laughter and doing unexpected things like getting us out of school to climb the local mountain with him.

Not for contemplatives

So the idea of becoming a missionary was already in my mind when I went to high school.  There I read books like the life of Fr Damien the Leper and during our annual retreats I heard about other possibilities.  I remember going to one retreat master, in some confusion, wondering if I should join a contemplative order.  He wisely told me, “You’d explode in a very short time.”  Anyway, I joined the Columbans.

Teaching in the Philippines

After ordination some of us were sent to a university in England, and as a result I was assigned to the Philippines to teach in a minor seminary.  I found out that I loved teaching and for a couple of very happy years things went well.  Sad to relate problems arose, conflicts and doubts and great darkness, some of them my own fault.  After a long struggle, of more than two years, I came to believe that I should never have become a priest.  I went home to Ireland and asked permission to resign.

Left priesthood

Immediately I had to look for a job and since I’d enjoyed teaching I applied for the few positions that were being advertised just then.  One of them replied and the following September I found myself teaching six different subjects to a group of third year high school students.  Most of them hated school and they taught me to teach.  Unknown to me the school manager, a priest, and the vice-principal were watching me and after my first year in the school they invited me to teach religious education full time.  It was one of the steps in the Lord’s plan to bring me back to the priesthood.

Faith and doubts of the young

Two characteristics of the young people I taught impressed me: their faith and their doubts.  Thanks to their parents they were convinced Catholics, yet they found Mass boring and had many questions about our religion.  Two priests used to visit the school.  Neither was a very good teacher, but the students were impressed by their way of life.  As Pope John Paul II says, “People today put more trust in witnesses than teachers.”  My students longed for such witness, for people whose lives showed that what we believed was really true.  They seemed to think that I taught religion because I was paid to do so, but that the two priests gave their whole lives to God.

Practical charity

Some of them went with me to a hospital for the mentally handicapped.  It was remarkable that boys who were troublemakers in school were totally responsible when put in-charge of a handicapped person.  We ran handicraft classes, held a disco for seventy adults every Tuesday night, and even produced programs.  When Laurel and Hardy met Dracula and Frankenstein six of the audience were so afraid that the nurses had to take them out, but we were asked to repeat the show since it had brought so many to life.  In all this I saw the practical charity of our young people.

Slowing down in the garden

When I went home first I stayed with two of my sisters in Belfast.  It was a time of great strife.  Frequently on my way to school I had to pass a building that had been bombed the night before.  On a couple of occasions I risked having my car burned.

Always there was tension.  Then I managed to buy an old house out in the country near the school, and there I learned to garden.  The previous owners had no interest in flowers or vegetables so I found a small jungle.  Every evening after school I’d go home and begin digging, rooting out huge weeds, old wheels, children’s toys and broken glass.   Slowly the garden took shape and slowly my mind slowed down.  Eventually I began to hear what was going on in my heart, to discover what I really wanted.  I prayed more, and listened to the Lord more.  My students’ needs and questions found echoes in my conscience.  Then one day, at a party, I heard a man say that the Pope had invited former priests to return to their ministry.

Lost and Found

In the weeks that followed I tried to find out if the Pope had really said that, and I prayed.  One night I was so filled up that I took the phone and called the Columban superior in Ireland. “Was it true?”  He responded very calmly, although he told me later that he was full of joy.  And so began the process of returning to the priesthood.  I forget some of the details now, but I remember a long interview with the superior.  Why had I left?  What was different now?  Then one day he called me.  I had permission, from the Vatican, to try to return to active priesthood.  I went home to tell my family, and bought a bottle of Champagne on the way – the only time I’ve ever tasted it.

Rome asked me to go to a religious house, to deepen my motives and to get suitable updating.  There was a three-month course in the Columban seminary which fitted that description, and after that I had some guided study, until just before Easter 1982, a letter came from the Vatican permitting me to rejoin the Columbans, and to work again as a priest.  My family and many Columban friends were present at the Mass when I took the oath of membership.  But later that week I had an even more overpowering experience when I joined our parish priest, and walked out onto the altar of our parish church on Holy Thursday, to celebrate with all my friends and neighbors.

I’m a slow learner

On my return to the Philippines I was assigned to several parishes in Zamboanga del Sur where the leaders of the Basic Ecclesial Communities carried on the good work begun by my students, teaching me more about being a missionary and a priest.  I must be a slow learner, because the process continues even today.  Maybe one day I’ll know.