He shared the Christ that he carried within him
Visiting the scenes of bitter fighting and incredible loss of life in Belgium and Northern France had an extraordinary impact on me, mystified as I still am that the sophisticated nations of Europe could find themselves in an all-consuming conflict from which none of the combatants could sensibly claim worthwhile victory. To wander reflectively and prayerfully through so many cemeteries in those parts, so carefully tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, was for me an experience of great sadness, powerfully deepened by the youthfulness of so many of the fallen and compounded, too, by the realisation that the identity of countless of them was ‘known only to God.’
Towards the year’s end, I was profoundly influenced by a markedly different experience: the unforgettable morning that I took my place as a concelebrant in St Patrick’s Cathedral, where an overflowing congregation gathered together on 7 December for a Solemn Requiem Mass to commend to the mercy of our Heavenly Father Caleb Nguyen Tuong Van. A Vietnamese-born Australian who had been convicted in Singapore of drug trafficking, he had been hanged for his crime, despite successive but vain attempts to save his life by people from all walks of life.
What had brought us together, however, was the powerful impact of his extraordinary conversion to the Catholic Faith while on death row, and his acknowledgement of guilt and his genuine repentance for his evil. The superb homily, preached by family friend Fr Peter Hansen, was a marvelous testimony to the redeeming love of Jesus, who Himself had died as a criminal for the sake of all of us.
Many other events occurred during 2005, but one that demands a special tribute from my pen was the entry into eternal life of my long-time friend and brother priest, Fr Walter Silvester. My debt to him is enormous, and any attempt at repayment can only be accomplished by my endeavours to be a pastor to people after his own heart.
In many ways, I found my eight years in the seminary a struggle to survive. At many points the sole incentive to keep going had been my unrelenting desire to be ordained, and thus be enabled to go out and work as a priest among the people. Over that period, one of my greatest sources of encouragement and determination to continue the course were my ongoing encounters with this dynamic and dedicated member of the priestly ranks, whose Christ-like warmth radiated to me in a truly personal way the Father’s love for me. His ministry to me in my darkest days helped keep the flame of hope alive that the dream I’d nurtured since primary school would one day be fulfilled.
Born on 13 October, 1919 at Mettkau, Germany, he joined the followers of St Vincent Pallotti. However, his journey to the Priesthood was dramatically interrupted when our world was convulsed yet again with World War II in 1939. He was consequently conscripted into the Navy of the Third Reich, and saw service as a U Boat Commander.
Once peace had been restored, he resumed his studies and was ordained to the priesthood in 1950. He was then sent to Australia, his adopted country, where he died after a most fruitful ministry on 24 March, 2005.
Fr Silverster’s Vigil Mass in the grounds of the Pallottine Centre in Studley Park Road, Kew, reminded me of a scene from the public life of Jesus, when so many crowded in to hear His words. While that capacity crowd would have gone away saddened, I’m sure that individually we found ourselves challenged to do our level best to follow in Wally’s footsteps, proclaiming the Good News of Jesus to everyone without exception.
All that had been missing from that Eucharistic celebration was the thought-provoking sentence that I had heard uttered at a funeral many years earlier at which he had been the chief celebrant, and at which I had been fortunate enough to concelebrate with him. On that occasion as we had all sat quietly together after Communion, he brought us up with a start, as only he could do. To the shock of us all gathered there announced with absolute clarity enriched with his powerful German accent, “We will now pray for the next person here to die.” The impact had been stunning to say the least.
It is not surprising, therefore, that I have no hesitation in naming Fr Walter Silvester as my Christ-like Character for 2005.