KOTA KINABALU: About 700 parishioners, prelates, clergy, religious brothers and sisters as well as invited guests joined St Simon Catholic Church Likas rector Fr Cosmas Lee to celebrate his 40th Sacerdotal Anniversary celebration at the parish-level event on Dec 26.
Concelebrating alongside Archbishop John Wong were Archbishop Emeritus John Lee, Kuala Lumpur Archbishop Julian Leow, Auxiliary Bishop Simon Poh from Sarawak as well as Fr Cosmas himself.
At the homily, Fr Cosmas read a message by his “classmate and best friend” Fr Theo Raaijmakers, a Dutch Mill Hill missionary. The latter, who was absent due to sickness, had worked most of his priestly life among the poor in India and for the last 25 odd years in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
Fr Theo wrote about the three important messages Jesus gave: to love, to forgive and to share.
“I often have to preach for children and youngsters, most of the time in some kind of dialogue. We read the gospel, and then we go through it and try to get some kind of message from it. I always try to stress that there are three things which are really the most important messages which Jesus has given us: to love, to forgive, and to share. If we live those three things in our daily lives, we are doing alright,” he said.
“The most important of those is love, and to love your enemies, well, that is really something! That is why forgiveness is so important. And if you can sit down with your enemy and share e.g. a meal with him/her that is a bit of a miracle. But, to forgive, and to sit down for that meal not as something that just has to be done, but to do so with LOVE!
“It impressed me years ago that one of the young people who is with us can never eat something without sharing with others, even if it is only a roll of bread. Never! And I have noticed that, with time, others have learnt the same thing. To share with the people who are there, not just with their friends.
“I always remember that Fr Michael Hollings (a Roman Catholic priest, mutual friend, who worked among the poor in London in the early 70s) would have masses in the houses of people; but they had to invite the people of the street they lived in, not just their family and friends; if after they had invited the people of their street there was still space, they could let their family members and friends join in as well. And love has to be present there at all times; a Eucharist without love is empty!
“Jesus asks Peter three times, ‘do you love me (more than these others do)’. He asks us the same thing all the time, and He asks it especially from His priests. “Do you really love me”? Do you love me more than anything or anybody else in this world? If not, you are not worthy to be a priest of mine. It is the most important and most difficult part of our mission. If we do not love Him above all else, we cannot be His disciples, because we won’t be able to love our fellow men and women.
“What little did we know when we became priests…! Speaking for myself, I think we kind of rolled into it, after Roosendaal (college for philosophy in Holland), and Mill Hill. We had studied something and we knew a few things, we had tried to pray and to meditate, but we were far from Him. Only after becoming a priest and when you begin to work, to live your priestly life, you begin to discover what that means. That you have to give your life with love, like Jesus Himself did.
“Mother Teresa said something like, ‘you have to give and give and give until it hurts so much that you can’t take it anymore; and when you can’t take it anymore, you still have to give some more’. I think that that is how it should be with our lives: give ourselves completely, for our friends but especially also for our enemies. That is what Jesus wants us to do; when He says that we have to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the prisoners, etc, that is what He means.
“Praying was something we did not know when we became priests. I am speaking for myself. It is something we slowly began to learn. I myself would begin with the rosary because it is so simple and pure. So often we see in the Gospels that Jesus goes to a lonely place to pray, and He tells us to pray at all times. That is what we have to try and do, and that is also what we have to teach to others. I think that too often in our parishes and other places of work we have more meetings than prayer; my good friend late Sister Stephany, used to say that meetings were often ‘shared ignorance’. Why do we have meetings if we don’t invite Jesus to be present there? He is the best teacher! We often have a kind of obligatory prayer at the beginning of our meetings, because that is what is done, and after that we begin to discuss things; we should always ask ourselves: what would Jesus do in this situation? I think it is often different from what we may talk about or decide in our meetings.
“I always stress, with our kids and youngsters, but also in many other places, that we cannot change the world. We have to start with ourselves and become better and holier people. And only then, after becoming the change we want to see in our family/surroundings, can we start to try and help others to change. An old and wise Italian priest here used to say, ‘it will be enough if I can change/help to save one person in my life’. We often have big plans and we want to do so many things, and we get lost in being busy. I think that what matters is to try every day to become holier, to come closer to God, and to try to help others to become holier. But don’t think that you have to change the whole world! Trying to become holier and closer to God and trying to help others to do the same is, I think, what saving souls means.
“When I became a priest, I think that I thought that I had all the answers. Now, being an old(er) man, I realise that I know nothing, or maybe just a little, and that I am still searching every day. My old parish priest said to me, when I started working with him, ‘the longer you are here, the less you understand’, and I think that he was right. The ways of God are mysterious, and only with His guidance can we move forward slowly.
“It is not easy to bring the younger people to Christ, and the older ones are often too set in their ways. The young people are often so worried about having the best phone, nice clothing, and so many other things. It really puts me off having people with their phones ringing during Mass.
“Nowadays I tell them, ‘answer your phone, it must be really important, more important than the Eucharist’, and I wait for them to answer the phone and finish their conversation! It helps, because the next time they and others have their phones turned off! The Eucharist is the most important thing in our lives; I love to have a celebration every day if at all possible – a moment of rest and peace in this mad, mad world, and a moment of trying to be closer to God. And I always try to have people participating as much as possible; often women are the best in that!
“The sacrament of forgiveness, of penance, is also a celebration which brings great joy to people, just as the anointing of the sick. I often try to invite people to the sacrament of forgiveness. They are often a bit scared, but explaining things as we go along, it brings great joy and relief to them. Baptism is the same; the little bit of explanation they get in parishes is often very poor; so I try to explain every step as we celebrate baptism, and people learn and pick up things, and they experience the love and kindness of God. It is a privilege to be allowed to do that,” he said.
The Mass was followed by a thanksgiving dinner at the parish hall where Archbishop John Wong and Parish Pastoral Council chairperson Anne Wong also delivered their messages, followed by Fr Cosmas.
In his message, Fr Cosmas got candid about speeches:
“After reading that long homily at Mass, I should be rightly excused not to talk too much anymore. When we were younger we wanted to talk a lot, thinking we were saying a lot, and that we should be heard. Now when we are older we still want to talk a lot, but we know a bit more that it’s not that useful to talk or say too much, except for fun.”
He said there is only “one needful thing to say and do: to thank God and to thank you for being with me to thank Him for the marvels he has done through my poor self, in the 40 years I have been priest”.
“I must first thank my Bishop, Archbishop John Wong, and Archbishop Emeritus John Lee, and fellow priests in the Archdiocese of KK. They are my fathers and my brothers in the family of the church I belong.
“I thank my parents. My mother left us in 1980, but my venerable father Francis at 94, known for his powerful voice in the Cathedral in song or scold, is here with us. He had lots to do with my priestly call. I thank my 8 brothers and two sisters and their spouses and children, and my relatives, for their faithful and generous support in the good and bad times of the last 40 years. I thank my sister Veron with her husband Leon and son Sean especially for flying back all the way from Melbourne, and carrying the chalice, a gift from the family,” he said.
Fr Cosmas also thanked those who came from farther away, “in this most awkward of days, from outside Sabah”.
Among the entertainment lined up that night were performances by St James Primary School students, St Simon Church Likas Junior Choir and the parish’s Youth Ministry.
Also present were representatives from La Salle, Daughters of St Paul, Franciscan Sisters of the Immaculate Conception, Good Shepherd, Montfort Gabrielites, Marist, guests from Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak as well as Fr Cosmas’ relatives, some of whom flew in from overseas.