Sabah’s first Franciscan priest celebrates Mass

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Fr Francisco Jude Basnayake celebrating Mass alongside parish priest Fr Cosmas Lee and the Franciscan friars from Australia, Singapore and Melaka. – pix by Douglas Yu

‘Life is a challenge’: Fr Francisco shares his journey towards priesthood

KOTA KINABALU: Sabah’s first Franciscan priest Fr Francisco Jude Basnayake celebrated Mass at St Simon Church Likas parish on Jan 24 and impressed the churchgoers with his impromptu sermon after accidentally leaving his homily script at Stella Maris Church Tanjung Aru where he was ordained the previous day.

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Fr Francisco raising the chalice during the Eucharistic celebration.

“I am trusting the Holy Spirit to speak to you,” he said as the parishioners listened attentively to this new priest who sports a long hair tied in a bun. “When I was preparing my homily for this weekend, I found it quite an irony and coincidence that after my ordination, straight away the reading is about how Jesus, coming back to His own hometown, introduced Himself and explained to His people what is His purpose in this world.

“After getting ordained and this was the reading… it’s a reminder to me what is my role as a priest, working as a priest, to serve as a priest.”

Before going further into his homily, he  asked the crowd a question: “Do you all believe in prophecy?” Then answering his own question, he said he “only recently” believed in it. The young priest then related several incidents which led to the fulfillment of several prophecies that led to his priestly ordination.

The first happened “some time ago”, he said. “My mother told us that before she got married, someone prophesied her future. He mentioned to her that her future husband is here. He also explained to her what kind of life she would go through… that one of her children will go away and come back, and bring honour to her family.

“True enough, she met my father and the rest is history,” he said, to an echo of chuckles. “Secondly, when I first joined the Franciscan friars some 10 years ago, I met this man who left the Catholic Church but he just came to visit the Church. While we were talking, he mentioned to me that when my age reached 36, I will reach some kind of promotion or achievement.

“When I heard that, I thought to myself, as a Franciscan, what promotion can I get? This year, I’m 36 years old – after nine years of formation, I’m finally a priest.

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Some of the parishioners who attended the Morning Mass.

“Looking back at the Gospel reading, I would think there are some similarities to the way Jesus started his public ministry and went back to his hometown to officially announce to the world on what is His purpose. You may think that now that I’m back here, I should be proud of what I’ve achieved for the last 10 years.

“True, there is something to be proud of and certain things not to be proud of… Yes, I’m glad that after nine years of formation I’ve come to this end and I start a new chapter of my life working as a priest. But not so proud because if you read Chapter 4 in the Gospel of Luke, you will read that Jesus, after preaching at the synagogue, His own people wouldn’t accept what He spoke and they got Him out to the cliff and almost want to throw Him off the cliff.

“So for me, this is a reminder that there will be a lot of challenges in my life as a priest. And there will be people who want to throw me off the cliff if I don’t meet their expectations. But I think that’s part and parcel of life. 

“But the connection between my story and the Gospel was, for me, God is trying to tell us that each and every one of us have a purpose in life. A purpose from the beginning of our own conception. God already has something planned for us. We may not know it but it is through our life journey that we will eventually find what is the meaning of our life, what is the purpose of our life… our existence in this world.

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Fr Francisco delivering his sermon.

“Most of the time, we may not accept or like what we are planned for. But if we totally surrender our life, our trust to God, all the difficulties that we have to go through, He will make straight a path for us to achieve or make good of that purpose. It may not be easy but with the grace of God, He will help us to make it meaningful, make it workable for us. All we need to do is to own it. When we say ‘yes’, we take the opportunity that God has put before us to make good use of it. Everything will fall into place.

“But if we still want to have things our way, to do things which are contrary to God’s teachings, that is where we will meet a lot of obstacles. And we will not reach the full purpose of our life. We may all come from different backgrounds – some of us are poor, some of us are rich; some of us are intelligent, some of us are not-so-intelligent; but that doesn’t mean that we are not equal in terms of our dignity as humans. We all come from different backgrounds and the way we grew up is the main reason how we end up now… whether we are sinners or perfect people, we are still loved by God.

“What I’m trying to say is that when we know that we are imperfect, that we are unworthy, that is a good sign because God is trying to call us, trying to indicate to us to come back to Him. And all we need to do is to return to Him. And when we do return to Him, He will help us to overcome our difficulties or struggles in life.

“I don’t think I’m a perfect person before I joined the Franciscan friars. I have my own weakness. I couldn’t even speak in front of people. I couldn’t even read properly – I mean I could read, but can’t read with confidence.”

After all the years in formation and trusting in God’s grace, he said he was able to overcome the fear of public speaking. “So here I am today, in front of all of you.”

“This is what we are called for. We just surrender to Jesus when He calls us to whatever vocation He calls and to just trust in Him,” he said.

Fr Francisco went on to talk about the first reading, on Ezra the priest making the Jewish people understand the Book of Law: “The people were weeping, mourning – they were sad and depressed because they were reminded of the wrong things they and their ancestors committed that caused them to be exiled in Babylon. And now, God has delivered them and brought them back to the promised land – Jerusalem.”

He then described how Ezra showed a compassion that mirrored God’s mercy on the people who were feeling depressed for their wrongdoings: “Stop being sad because God has kept His promise to deliver them and bring them back to the promised land.

“We may think that we are sinners, we are incapable of doing good. Yes, that was the past. But now that we are gathered here in this Church to worship and praise God, we should also look to the future with hope that in all those times that we were imperfect, we did wrong, God is giving a chance to put things right for us. No one else can do it for us. We can do it for ourselves, with the help of God, of course.”

He also said it is important to cultivate a strong prayer life. “In formation years, we are always taught to keep our prayer life strong. Because when we don’t have a strong prayer life, that is when we will go astray. And it’s not just for us, but for everyone – prayer life is very important.”

Meanwhile, on St Paul’s letter to the Corinthians in the second reading on Christian unity, he said: “We may come from different cultures, different race, different age, but we are all equal as children of God. Therefore, each and every one of us have a role to play in this Church – to motivate, to help each and every one to rise so that we can serve God equally and faithfully.

“We should never look at others as someone inferior and ourselves as superior. When we come to this Church, we are all equal in the eyes of God… Therefore, we are all called to look at each other as brothers and sisters. That is something difficult. But if we let go of our pride or selfishness, our greed, and look at each and every one as our own blood brother or blood sister, then we will have a totally different outlook or picture of others.

“But if we do not let go of all these negativity, we will look at each other as someone else – who are different or even inferior to us. And just like how Jesus said, He is here to ‘bring Good News to the poor, proclaim liberty to captives and give new sight to the blind’, that is also our purpose in this world.

“It’s not just the work of God, the work of the priest but also our purpose as Christians – to live our life according to God’s teaching,” Fr Francisco said, concluding his sermon.

The Mass was concelebrated with parish priest Fr Cosmas Lee and Friar John Wong, Custos of St Anthony Custody of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, as well as Provincial Superior Friar Paul Smith and Friar Cyril of Melaka Diocese.

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