My Lord Bishops, dear Rev. Fathers, Brothers, Sisters and beloved brethren in Christ,
St. John Mary Vianney, patron saint of the diocesan priests once preached on the priesthood and stated: “the priest is not a priest for himself; he does not give himself absolution; he does not administer the sacraments to himself. He is not for himself, he is for you” [The little Catechism of the Cure of Ars, Tan Books, Charlotte, North Caroline, 1951 p35]. Yes the priest, according to the letter to the Hebrews, though taken from among men, is constituted to act for men in their relations with God – as a sort of a bridge between the temporal nature of human life, and the eternity of God. [cfr. Heb 5:1]. I am here also reminded about the words of Archbishop Fulton J Sheen who states that “a priest is mysterious and he is mysterious because he is amphibious: he lives in two worlds. He is at his best when he leads a “double life”, at once both human and divine. Because of this duality, he functions best at times of crisis like ours, for his faith began in tragedy when goodness had only a Cross on which to lean. Like a sailor in a storm at sea, he is dutifully climbing to the crow’s nest, but looking back in fear at the thought of a fall. No life is more adventurous, for at every moment, like the trapeze artist, he is swinging between time and eternity.” [Preface, Those Mysterious Priests, Alba House edition, New Your 2005].
The priestly call itself is a call of love, of delight and of election by the Lord which shows a sense of preference and confidence in the person called: “come follow me” are the words he addressed to the apostles. Pope John Paul II calls it a gift and one that is steeped in mystery because this call is totally gratuitous and not based on any human consideration. The call is for a special relationship which would flow out into a commitment of service. And it is the Lord Himself who will make those called bear fruit. “I will make you fishers of men” [Mc. 1: 17]. It is not the talents or the efforts of the person called that matters. What is expected of him is to be totally united to the Lord. “I am the vine, you are the branches; whoever remains in me, with me in him, bears fruit in plenty; for cut off from me you can do nothing” [Jn. 15:5]. Priesthood then is profoundly a call to communion with Jesus, a communion of intimacy which alone would be the basis of one’s success. And a fruitful priest is one who succeeds in the Lord because he has given himself entirely to the Lord in humble obedience and wishes like St. John the Baptist, that the Lord grows and bears fruit in Him. He is conscious that he himself is not all that important. The Lord is important always: “He must increase and I must decrease” were the words of St. John the Baptist. [cfr. Jn 3:30].
The commitment to serve our brothers and sisters in the name of Christ comes to us priests, dear brothers in the priesthood, only from that loving communion with the Lord. Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen once again stated so: “the priest does not belong to himself, he belongs to Christ. He need never worry who he is; he is not his own. He is Christ’s” [Those Mysterious Priests, p 221]. If we as priests succeed in our mission it is only because between the Lord who called, and us, there is a profoundly intimate union. That must have been the case and we know that it is so, with our beloved priest brother, Fr. Joe De Mel, whose life as a priest we commemorate as we bid farewell to him today. We thank God for this elder brother of ours who after a joyful and fruitful ministry has left us and gone back to the Lord who loved him and made him his close friend and collaborator in the vineyard. He has been a tower of strength to all of us.
Born on the 15th June 1928 to devout Catholic parents, Chevalier Thomas De Mel and Mrs Clara Maria De Silva, Fr. Joe had five brothers and two sisters with whom he shared his life as a youngster. He did his studies at St. Joseph’ College, Maradana and was an excellent sportsman leading the College Cricket team in the year 1948. Having heard the call of the Lord, he entered the major seminary the same year and was sent for higher studies to Rome by His Eminence Thomas Cardinal Cooray in the year 1950. In the year 1953 after completing his post graduate degree in Theology at the Pontifical Urban University he was ordained a priest on the 20th December. From then on Fr. Joe served in several parishes and in many chaplaincies before being appointed Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Colombo by Cardinal Cooray. During this time he was always very close to the priests and was often their voice to His Eminence. For a period of 10 years, that is from 1981-1991 he served as the Rector of the National Major Seminary in Kandy, being chosen for that by the Catholic Bishop’s Conference, preparing many young men from all the dioceses of Sri Lanka for the priesthood. He then moved over as Co-founder of the Samata Sarana project in Mutuwal initially founded by the late Rev. Sister Bernie Silva, assisting thousands of poor and destitute people specially in the Colombo North area. He became its Chairman after Sister Bernie’s death and remained so until death.
Fr. Joe was a thorough gentleman, simple and unassuming, gentle in his ways and profoundly committed to the Lord and the people entrusted to his care, specially the poor and the distressed. The fact that after returning from the Seminary, he decided to spend his life until death among the urban poor gives proof of this commitment. While being deeply loyal to the Church he was ever conscious of his responsibilities as a man of God towards the cause of justice and was not afraid to stand up for the truth. He was also very close to the priests especially the younger ones so much so that for a certain period he was named the first Director of the Ongoing Formation programme for priests in the Archdiocese. While being deeply loyal to the Church and its pastors he did not hesitate to advise them on important decisions with a great sense of wisdom and foresight. I too was fortunate to have been associated with him this way.
In the death of Fr. Joe we have lost an elder brother and a wise guide who was also an active voice at our diocesan Presbyteral and other gatherings. He was a man of great faith and pastoral wisdom and a role model for all of us. We thank God for him. We know that as human beings we are all weak and fragile. But the Lord assures us of his mercy if we reflect truly in our lives His great and selfless love for humanity. As Pope Francis so very clearly stated a good priest is one who can be recognized by the way his people are anointed – those who can experience personally the troubles, the joys, the burdens and the hopes of their people; shepherds who feel the “odour of the sheep”. Fr. Joe was truly such a priest for he went out of his way to help all those in need. He felt for them. As Jesus stated only such lovable anointed ones will be received in the Kingdom of Heaven for He stated “I was hungry you gave me to eat; I was thirsty you gave me to drink….naked and you clothed me…… come and enter into the Kingdom prepared for you” [cfr. Mt. 25:34]. That was what Fr. Joe stood for until the very end. Farewell dear Fr. Joe and may the good Lord, then, receive you into His presence with those beautiful words “well done, good and faithful servant”, words of acceptance of our own Eucharistic sacrifice by Christ – our final and complete consecration and may you enjoy the bliss of heaven unto eternity. Amen.