A Red Sash

A Red Sash

by Terry Burke mhm

In 1942, the Japanese invaded what is now East Malaysia: Sarawak and Sabah. They interned all the Mill Hill missionaries as enemy aliens, except for those from Tyrol, a German speaking part of northern Italy, because Italy was an ally of the Japanese. There were two such Mill Hill men in Sarawak and eight in Sabah, but when, in 1945, Italy surrendered, the eight men in Sabah were rounded up by the Japanese and marched off to an internment camp. They never arrived. Somewhere on that journey, they were killed; we don’t know how and we are not sure where, for their remains have never been found.

Josef Dapoz mhm

The news of their deaths eventually reached their home in Tyrol and their story was heard by a newly ordained young priest of
the Diocese of Brixen, by the name of Josef Dapoz. Towards the end of his life, I visited him in Sabah, he told me that the news of their deaths had a profound effect on him and he began to hear a voice in his heart saying, “Go and replace one of them!” He eventually went to his Bishop to ask if he could join Mill Hill and after thinking about it for a week, his Bishop gave his permission to do so. The young Father Josef left the Tyrol for Mill Hill in London, where he prepared to take his oath as a Mill Hill Missionary and, in 1948, he was appointed to Sabah, where he spent the rest of his life. He died at the age of 90, after 63 years of service – the last Mill Hill priest in Sabah and his death brought to an end 130 years of service by Mill Hill priests in that State.

When someone joins the Mill Hill Missionaries, he takes an oath to dedicate himself to the work of the missions and is given a red sash as a sign of the love and service to which he is called and also of his readiness to lay down his life, if called upon to do so, in the service of the Gospel. At the beginning of Father Josef’s funeral, in Kota Kinabalu, I laid a red sash in front of his coffin as a sign of the 63 years of his ministry and also in honour of all the other Mill Hill men who had spent all or part of their lives working in Sabah.

During those 63 years, like us all, when Josef had regrets – for instance, when he heard of the deaths of his mother or father, he probably wished he could have been at home for them; or when loneliness hit him and he would have liked to have someone special close nearby. At such times, his red sash would have reminded him of that time when he freely chose to walk with the Lord as a missionary and the memory of that choice would have comforted him and encouraged him, thus helping him over the dark patch that he was facing. Such symbols of the life-choices we make – red sashes, wedding rings etc. – are important helps in the spiritual life.

One of the earliest teaching documents that we have in the Church is the “Didache”, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles”; it comes from about the year 150AD. It begins: “There are two ways: a way of life and a way of death and these two ways are very different”. It is phrased in that way to place before the person a clear choice – to walk the way of life with Christ or not. Such choices are important because they gives meaning and direction to everything else that follows on that journey. Unfortunately, many of us who were born Catholics were not explicitly presented with that choice. Our teachers usually just assumed that we would be Christians, with the result that the Christian life could well have appeared to be just an ongoing series of light and dark patches, with no memory of an explicit choice to connect them and give overall meaning and direction to our journey. For married couples, there is the ring – a memory of the marriage vows, to help them over the difficult times. For Fr. Josef – and also for me – there is the red sash to remind us of the choice we made and the memory of that promise has thus far helped carry me over the rocks.

For various reasons, we do not often wear the sash, nowadays, but it remains an important sign of Mill Hill and an important part of our journey – a powerful reminder of that day, when we like Josef Dapoz dedicated ourselves to the service of the Gospel and found in that dedication the love and grace to live it out – with joy!

Terry Burke mhm

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