I have just read the homily below by Fr. Christopher Soh SJ, one of the persons Fr. Joseph Yao wanted to express his thanks to. I am so glad to know that Fr. Chris has said what he said in this homily, and since it has been publicly circulated, I am taking liberty to share with more people. Indeed, I agree with Fr. Chris Soh that we often hear so many good things about those who have passed on in eulogies that it does take lots of faith for us to believe in all that we hear. I have attended countless funerals, having served for years as a lector/choir member in this ministry of consolation. So I understand what Fr. Chris means when he says that it is best we try to meditate.
Dear friends, I’d like to begin, if I may, by making a confession. I have an allergy. It’s not a food allergy. Or a drug allergy. It’s an allergy to eulogies. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not against saying good things about someone. As you know, that’s the literal meaning of the word eulogy. Good word. Nothing wrong with that. It’s just that sometimes, when I listen to certain eulogies, I can’t help but feel as though we’re already starting a process of canonisation. And there’s a part of me–you may call it the skeptical or even cynical part–that doesn’t feel all that comfortable doing that. I can understand the need to highlight certain qualities about someone for the rest of us to admire. But sometimes it sounds as though the person has already reached perfection. Has already achieved a state of spiritual advancement far beyond what most mere mortals can ever hope to attain in this life.
Dear friends, my aim tonight is not to canonise Fr. Joseph Yao. I do not have the power to do that. Joseph was a good man. A good priest. A good Jesuit. But, like me, he also had his weaknesses. And I feel it’s important for us to remember that, because only then can we better appreciate the power of God at work in him. Only then can we find the courage and inspiration not just to admire, but also to emulate what we see in him. What I suggest we do tonight is not to canonise. Not even to eulogise. But rather to meditate. To meditate on the Scriptures and on the Feast that we are celebrating today. So that we can see a little more clearly, the power of God at work in our beloved brother and priest.
Meditating on our readings today, I’m struck most of all by the kind of people that God calls. We may refer to it as the call of the unready. The choice of the unworthy. Consider the prophet Jeremiah, for example. When he receives God’s call in the first reading, he’s quite clearly unready. He obviously considers himself unworthy. Ah, Lord, he says, look, I do not know how to speak: I am a child! A prophet is called to proclaim God’s word to others. How to do that if you don’t even know how to speak? And yet, God still chooses Jeremiah. God calls him and qualifies him. God puts God’s word into his mouth, and gives him the courage to speak. In the gospel, Zechariah too is someone unready for God’s call. He and his wife Elizabeth are old and childless. Barren. Yet God still chooses them to be the parents of John the Baptist.
The call of the unready. The choice of the unworthy. Fr. Joe had this experience too. There may be those of us who think that responding to a religious vocation is a great gift that one can make to God and the Church. And it is. But Fr. Joe also looked at it rather differently. He thought of his vocation first of all as God’s tremendous gift to him. He never tired of talking about how God had saved him by calling him to the religious life. Fr. Joe had a deep sense of how God had called him in his unworthiness and sinfulness. I still remember a conversation I once had with him while we were both Jesuit novices. Joseph had just completed the long retreat of thirty days. I asked him how was it for him. He said that, for him, it all boiled down to one thing. One feeling. Gratitude. Gratitude for all that God had done for him in spite of his own unworthiness. The call of the unready. The choice of the unworthy. This too was Fr. Joe’s experience.
A second thing that I find striking in our readings today, is what we may refer to as the certainty of the unknowing. Consider what Peter says about the people to whom he is writing in the second reading: You did not see Jesus Christ, yet you love him… and you are sure of the end to which your faith looks forward, that is, the salvation of your souls. You did not see, and yet you are sure. The certainty of the unknowing. I saw something like this too especially in the way in which Fr. Joe reacted to the news of his illness. Among the first things he did was to call a close priest-friend of his to make a good confession. And, after that, he would repeatedly say that he was ready to go. Ready to meet the Lord. He had not seen what was awaiting him in the next life. But he was so sure that it was something good. Something worth anticipating. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Fr. Joe did not find his illness a burden. I’m not saying that he did not flinch in the face of his suffering. He was, after all, human. Like you and me. But even though he suffered and struggled, there was a part of him that remained convinced that he was going to a better place. The certainty of the unknowing.
There is one more thing that’s important to highlight tonight. It’s something that’s perhaps not so obvious to us who live on the equator. But it’s no less significant. The date for the Solemn Feast of the Birth of St. John the Baptist is actually chosen to coincide with the summer solstice. And, as you know, the summer solstice is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. After the solstice, the days begin to get shorter and shorter, until we celebrate the birth of Jesus at Christmas. After Christmas, the days get longer again. What the choice of this date does is remind us of those words of John the Baptist. Those words with which we began Mass just now: Christ must increase, but I must decrease. And this too is what we see in the passing of our beloved brother and priest, Joseph Yao. Tonight, we witness Joseph decreasing. But only so that the love of Christ may continue to increase in the lives of those of us left behind. Until we meet with him again in the life to come.
Allowing Christ to increase, by letting ourselves decrease. This is the fruit of meditation. Meditation on our Scriptures and our Feast, as they shed light on the life of our dearly departed. My dear friends, how might we continue to deepen our meditation today?