Preferential Love

Fr Henry Schembri SJ

Preferential Love - Fr Henry Schembri, S.J.

 "Oh, no, no, no, Father!" blurted out I who was interviewing Fr Henry Schembri. I could not take it that there was nothing interesting in the story of his vocation. So I stressed, "The story of your vocation must definitely be fascinating, as all such stories are! Do please relate it all to me so that I may tell it to others and we all learn the varied and mysterious ways God uses to draw people to him."

Fr Henry is an elderly Jesuit priest of seventy-seven years of age who after spending over thirty years of missionary work in India, over twelve years of parish work in England and a certain number of years of apostolate in Malta, feels now restrained in his activities as he is tied to a wheelchair owing to an ailment in his legs. However, he is still jovial, alert, and pleasant to talk to, and has retained, all through, his zeal for the work of Christ.

Fr Henry screwed up his eyes and twitched his mouth, and for an instant fell into a moody silence. I tried to spark him off by prompting "Father, it was when you were twenty-four years of age, wasn't it, that the whole saga of your vocation began to unfold. Please Father, go on from there!"

"Yes, indeed! I was then twenty-four years old," began Fr Henry, "I had a good job as an engineer, and had already set my eyes on a lovely girl whom I fantasised to make my future wife. In fact, this girl and me used to meet every evening at the Msida square in front of the church and sit on a bench facing the sea, chatting. We used to spend an hour or so enjoying each other's company. I must say, these were fabulously happy evenings for me, and I presume also for my girl.

"Indeed, I had discussed all this with my father telling him that I had found the girl I would like to marry. My father nodded approvingly, and I knew he was happy too. The evening meetings with my girl proceeded smoothly and pleasantly, and it was only after about four months that the unexpected happened."

"Was it the turn of events that hit you, Father?" interrupted I, knitting my eyebrows inquisitively.

"One evening," resumed Fr Henry demurely, "I went as usual to the Msida Square waiting for my girl, but alas, to my bitter surprise and puzzlement, she did not turn up! There was no sign of her anywhere. She failed to show up the next day and the day after that. I was really confused, for she had not even sent a message or a word of explanation. Nevertheless, every evening without fail, I kept on going to the Msida square waiting anxiously for her.

"On one of these evenings while I was waiting at the usual place, I happened to espy the mother of my girl crossing the square on her way to church. I dashed to her and piteously asked her why her daughter had stopped coming to meet me. The mother squirmed nervously, and mumbled ‘I never forbade her to meet you.' This reply shocked me, and I felt a wave of anger surging up my throat. I then spurted out, ‘So her love is like a fire of straw that keeps the flame for a few moments and then dies out! Tell your daughter that tomorrow morning I will be waiting for her here and that I want to know what is brewing in her mind!' She promised she would do that, and proceeded on her way to the church. I was left dumbfounded!

"Did she appear, the next morning?" I asked. "If she did, I expect she would be full of apologies!"

Without seemingly taking undue notice of what I asked, Fr Henry rumbled on, "The next morning I noticed someone approaching; it was not my girl but her younger sister. With a pleasant smile she gently handed me a letter from her sister, my girl, with apologies that she could not come. With trembling hands I opened the letter and read: ‘I could not come to meet you, for at home we are rather upset. My mother would not let my elder sister go out with her boyfriend, for the simple reason that she doesn't like him. She is well pleased with you, and in fact urges me to meet you. However, in protest, or rather in defiance, to my mother's unreasonable attitude towards my elder sister, I have decided to stop going out with you till this family squabble is over.' As soon as I finished reading, I reacted gruffly and said, ‘What has this squabble got to do with us?' and then in a fit of rage, ‘Tell your sister to forget me altogether; tell her that we are to consider ourselves strangers who had never known each other!'

"In my state of rabid dejection and confusion, I admit, those harsh words were lip-uttered and did not come out from my heart. For the love I had for my girl was genuine and pure, and such a love cannot possibly be extinguished at one fell swoop. So much so that my whole body was at the moment shaking all over, and I felt helpless physically and mentally. I almost fainted on the spot.

"For days, a deep depression caused by the sense of loss gripped me, and I could not set my mind to think of anything whatsoever. I could not eat or sleep, and the people around me, worrying about my deteriorating health, kept anxiously asking what could have happened to me. But I kept mum about it all.

"Now started the drama of my vocation," uttered softly Fr Henry and his face seemed somehow to brighten up.

"I was expecting that," sighed I, with a feeling of relief.

"After the shock I went through," continued the Father, "a thought started tickling my mind that after all, human love was indeed fickle and couldn't be relied upon. No matter how genuine it may be on one side, the other side can flippantly reject it. Without being quite aware of it, I started yearning for a love that would never let me down. My imagination hovering round and round slowly began to focus more and more on the person and love of Jesus. Yes, it was Jesus' love I wanted!

"I began to say my prayers more fervently, going daily to Mass and receive Holy Communion, pay an evening visit to the Blessed Sacrament, and somehow get attracted towards church functions. The Eucharist became the centre of my thought and desire.

"I still remember those late evenings when I knelt before the Blessed Sacrament in a dark and empty church and eagerly prayed the Lord to show me clearly what he wanted of me. Tears flooded my eyes and my heart grew heavy! Yet I knew that there was peace in me. I cannot explain how words of prayer came to my mouth. Was it the Holy Spirit praying in me?   

"Slowly and in some mysterious way, there began to mature in me a desire to go to foreign missions, and consequently also to study for the priesthood." 

I barged in, "That was it then, eh, Father! Our Lord was not making any clarion calls for you or any extraordinary summons, he did not appear to you in a vision as he did to St Paul on his way to Damascus. No! He was simply tapping at your mind and heart."

"Yes indeed, he was!" Father concurred. "But listen to this. I happened to have a cousin of mine, a Jesuit, whom at times I visited just to say hello. On one of these visits I happened to meet Fr Robert Darmanin, S.J.  I can definitely say that it was the Lord who led me to meet this holy Jesuit and to have a pleasant chat with him. I was able to manifest to him what I was going through. He listened to me sympathetically asking me some very relevant questions which I found so gratifying to answer. I felt that I was being gradually relieved of my anguish. This Father invited me to join a few young men of the Young Christian Workers on a week-end retreat, and it was at that retreat that I took my decision to become a Jesuit. Fr Darmanin approved.            

"Now started another grim episode of my life. It was't easy for me to tell my father and my friend (the boyfriend of the elder sister of my girl) that I had discarded altogether the idea of marrying, and that I wanted to become a Jesuit. I did tell them, but what a strain it was for me! My friend (who by now became formally engaged to the elder sister of my girl) told me that when he broke the news about me to my girl, she broke out into bitter tears. As he was telling me all this, I felt like stabs of pain in my heart, and words stuck in my throat.

"It was one evening in May as I was going out of the church after the devotional functions that my girl, who was accompanied by her elder sister, accosted me.  With a coy face and tearful eyes she handed me a letter, asking me to think seriously about it and then give her a reply later on. I took the letter home and read: ‘I never wanted to stop going out with you, but thought only of suspending for a time our meetings until the trouble at home calmed down. I sincerely wish to start going out with you again!  All of a sudden I felt my heart leap with joy, for after all, I had truly loved this girl. Yet withal, I thought best to consult my Jesuit counsellor about it. 

"I asked Fr Darmamin whether this turn of events meant that, after all, Jesus wanted me to marry. I confessed to him that I still loved that girl and that I did not want in the least to hurt her feelings. ‘But,' I concluded, ‘if you tell me that Jesus is calling me, I would not say no to him.' Fr Darmanin clapped his eyes on me and with a shadow of a smile started humming 
La Donna Mobile. Then, calling me by my first name, said, "Nerik, I can tell that you have a vocation, but it's entirely up to you to decide!"  My heart throbbed painfully!

"Now I wanted to face the biggest challenge of all, that is, to meet my girl and explain everything to her. I contrived with my friend to arrange my encounter with her at the usual place in Msida, When my girl and I met, none of us two could at first utter a single word. At last, with tears brimming in her eyes, she showed me an old letter. It was my first letter to her wherein I asked her to start going out with me. In this letter I had stated that ‘Nothing but death will extinguish my love for you." She asked me whether I was sincere when I wrote those words. I softly replied, ‘Yes I was, and I still love you. So much so that when you left me I did not look for any other girl. But now it is Jesus who is calling me, and I cannot refuse him in order to please you. I will continue to love you as a sister of mine but not as my wife.'

At these words of Father Henry, I breathed a sigh of relief and smoothly drawled, "Those were indeed strong words that required great guts. But you said them! They definitely show not only your strong determination, but above all the hand of God who was guiding you."

"Before my girl left me," concluded Fr Henry, "I assured her that Jesus would look after her and would set her happily in life with a man better than me. She sighed wistfully ‘I will wait for you for a whole year!' to which I retorted ‘If you really love me you would pray for me to go where Jesus wants me.' She walked away slowly.  

"After a few months of preparation, Fr Darmanin presented me to the Provincial to be admitted into the Society of Jesus."

Interview conducted and written by Anton Azzopardi, s.j.

 

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