Old boy Fr Justin Wylie celebrated mass with the College and Grade 7 Boys
This is quite a sensation; let me tell you, to look out at all of you – my brother Bennies boys - after all these years; all these happy memories. To be here among you again – it’s great: but all of you have changed.
You know, I really love this school, and I loved all my friend and teachers at this school: and so, by default, I feel a great deal of love for each one of you, too. I called you my brother Bennies boys a few moments ago, and just pay attention to how important brotherhood is in today’s Gospel. Jesus is walking along the beach and choosing those whom He will set apart as His special friends. Look who He chooses: brothers. First, he calls Andrew and his younger brother Simon, and then He calls James and his younger brother John. To be brother means to be in it together, to be a support for each other. As Jesus comes into our midst at this Mass today, let Him find us to be brothers.
How great it would be to get to know you like brothers, to know where you are from, what kind of family you have, your likes and dislikes, quirks and strengths. It would truly be an honour. What a dream come true it would be for me to be appointed your full time chaplain!
So I’d love to meet each one of you, but there won’t be time. As it is, we have only a morning to get to know each other. It is the custom to receive individual blessings at the end of a First Mass- it comes with a Plenary indulgence – but with so many of you….it would take all day and you’d surely miss all your classes….and we wouldn’t want that, would we? So perhaps the best thing to do would be for the class representative of each class to come up after Mass, and I will bless all of you through your rep.
As time is too short to get to know each of you, I may as well talk about me. We got up to a lot of mischief in my day, let me tell you but we were essentially good boys: especially compared with some of the hooligans in the schools around us. I’m proud to say I never saw or heard of a drug of any sort at this school.
I can’t tell you whether Bennies was the best school in the country back then - nor did I even care – but I knew then, and I maintain even now, that it was the best school in the world for me. I don’t know if Bennies is the best school in Joburg now, nor do I really care: but I really want each of you to feel that it’s the best school in the world for you. That you have somehow been chosen and set apart for something great by having been sent here by your parents, and by the Lord God.
So, in the end I became a priest. I guess I should tell you how that happened. If you speak to my contemporaries, or if you ask Mr Dobson or Mrs Leong (who were here when I was here), they’ll probably tell you they always knew I was going to become a priest. But I certainly did not. I wasn’t by a long shot the clean-cut kid: if I told you the half of the stuff I pulled in those years right here, today would probably be the last invitation I ever got to come back to St Benedict’s! But it’s also true that something was happening to me from the earliest age and they observed it. What was it?
Well. It’s kind of like what the first reading is saying when it has God saying to Jeremiah (who also became a priest, by the way) that “Before you were born I set you aside”. Getting a religious vocation is like this: it is being set aside for something special. You don’t choose it, it just comes to you out of the blue. Like James and John in the Gospel: they were preparing their nets. They were going to be fisherman, and then Jesus came and set them aside, to be fishers of men. What does it mean that priests are fishers of men? It means that the Church is an expert on humanity. What a beautiful and important role to have in the world.
Some of you are being called. The others can go forward to perform their tasks and careers in the world carefree - and Lord knows we need good men in all these fields – but you, no. you are being set aside for something extra-ordinary, and this is your purpose – it’s why you’ve been put on the planet - and it will bug you and leave you unsatisfied and unfulfilled…until you do it.
You may deny it, my friends, but a good proportion of you- whether you like it or not – are being called right now. I know it. I sat where you sit, and you may reject it all you want, but I’m warning you it will haunt you. The one who is calling you is not one voice among many: it is the primordial voice that called you forth from your mother’s womb (as the first reading puts it), that called forth the mountain ranges and the galaxies of the stars at the beginning of creation. Volcanoes and oceans couldn’t resist this voice, but you will resist? We’ll see. There’s little point in delaying. This is why the Gospel reading of today emphasizes that both sets of brothers - Simon & Andrew and James & John – responded at once, immediately. But take your time if you wish: if the Lord wants you, he will get you.
But whatever you end up doing it will be in the Church. All of you are in the Church, not just those of you with religious vocations. If you become a lawyer (as I was) or an engineer (like many of my friends) or a doctor, or whatever, you will still be a Catholic first. And last: long after your career has faded away, this is what defines you in the end. So if you do not work at being a Catholic doctor, or a Catholic lawyer or engineer or whatever, you are achieving nothing.
This too is your call. Whatever you will do in life – Jeremiah makes it quite clear – it will be by the command of the Lord. You will go “wherever I send you”: you will do “whatever I command you” says the Lord. As far as I am concerned, the mere fact that you find yourself at this great school, by the grace of God and the sacrifices of your parents, means that you are in some way “set aside” for something extraordinary. It is your great fortune to have landed here, but this also becomes, at the same time, your great responsibility. Social immaturity is for others, not for you. The Lord says to Jeremiah, and He says to you “no excuses!” DO NOT SAY “I AM ONLY A CHILD”. Go forth; God will put the words in your mouth.
He says to you: “No fear!” FOR I AM WITH YOU AND WILL RESCUE YOU. What a tremendous promise! I am with you – God Almighty – and I will rescue you if something happens to you. What confidence we can have in this promise! Some people will jump off bungee cranes and tall bridges on the basis of their confidence in a shabby elastic band. Imagine what great things you can attempt and accomplish in life on the basis of far more: you have the promise that God himself will come to your rescue. Be bold! Be daring! Be courageous! Be audacious! Attempt great things!
What are these things? The Lord suggests them when He says: “There will be “uprooting” and “planting”, “tearing down” and “building”. None of that sounds easy – but you are promised the best help of all: that of Almighty God.
Gosh: look at all of you, When I came to the school, it started at standard 2 (grade 4): and I stayed here until matric. We were a small school, not much more than a hundred or so boys at first and you easily knew all the teachers – many of whom were priests and religious brothers. We loved them so much, you know.
How well we knew each other when we were pupils here together! I think I knew just about every person in the school, you even got to know many of the parents of the pupils, and even their sisters – which was a bonus for guys trapped in an all-boys’ school.
To really know a person is such a gift, and let me tell you, you will seldom in your life spend as much time in the company of your friends as you do during these , your school years. I urge you to make the most of it. Look around you: these guys are going to be with you for life. They really are given you as your brother s. They will be you varsity - holiday buddies. They will get you out of serious trouble a hundred times. They will stand beside you at your wedding and will be the godfathers to your future children.
And some of them will be at your death-bed. Life is precious, life is fragile. Nothing is promised to you forever. I have had to bid farewell to Liam Whelan, Stephen Roberts, Stephen McGuiness and Andrew Crous: my dead classmates – dead even before they got to see me as a priest. I’d like to remember them in a special way at the altar today.
I’m telling you: take it seriously. Life is not just a joke. These are the years in which you make it happen: don’t blow it. You know, you spend a huge chunk of your life at school, and much of the stuff might work on your nerves and so forth, but I can really promise you that these are some of the best times of your life. So enjoy them. You know that the Lord wants your happiness: Scripture says that the glory of God is man fully alive. So live you school years with gusto. These are years of character formation, so be formed. Take it as a challenge: embrace it whole heartedly. God bless each of you, and please remember to pray for your priest and Bennies brother - Fr Justin.
Fr Justin Wylie