Brother Bonaventure Rayappan – soon to be Deacon Bonaventure – gets asked a lot what his vocation journey is like. Speaking from the heart he would say that it is not all a bed of roses, there are thorns too; it is not all bliss and joy, it is rough and painful too.
“So far it’s been a journey of self-discovery leading to a clearer understanding of my vocation. I am called to ‘be compassionate, just as [my] Father is compassionate (Luke 36:6). The verse summarises my vocation journey and my future ministerial priesthood,” said the 34-year-old.
Ultimately, the eight-year journey brought him closer to God. Drawing from the wisdom of Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis’ third apostolic exhortation published two years ago, Bro Bonaventure said he has arrived at the conviction that God is important in his life and He is important in his ministry too.
“’In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people’. This passage from Gaudete et Exsultate, Chapter 2, subtitled An Intellect without God and without Flesh, made me think deeply about how and what my ministry should be. Essentially, I felt that if God is missing from my ministry then my ministry would end up as nothing,” he said.
Early July, in preparation for the diaconate ordination, Bro Bon, as he is fondly known, went on a five-day retreat facilitated by Msgr James Gnanapragasam. He said he felt God’s loving hands throughout the retreat, reaffirming his call to the priesthood and helping him prepare for his work in the Lord’s vineyard.
“I have been preparing myself both spiritually and physically. The physical preparation helps in the spiritual preparation,” he said, calling to mind a well-known quote from his namesake, a Franciscan scholar and saint:
“Meditation on Christ in His humanity is corporeal in deed, in fact, but spiritual in mind…. By adopting this habit, you will steady your mind, be trained to virtues, and receive strength of soul....Let meditation of Christ’s life be your one and only aim, your rest, your food, your desire, your study.” - St Bonaventure
Bro Bon is grateful that he had the blessings of both his parents before stepping into College General, Penang, in 2013, at the age of 26.
“I am the youngest in a family of three children. Both my elder brother and elder sister are married with children. I went to SMK La Salle Klang and upon completing my Form 5 I took a certificate course in Business Administration. I then went to work in my father’s canopy rental business. When I turned 21, my father was happy to hand over the business to me.
“Up until then life was good. Then a particular incident happened, which I want to keep to myself. It affected me greatly. I felt very strongly that something was missing in my life and I desperately wanted to fill this gap.
“I had been an active member of my parish until my confirmation, but now I started thinking about going to church regularly. All this was about 13 years ago.
“I felt good just being in church and gradually my relationship with God was restored. Then I realised what it was. Peace. I had been missing peace and I learned that only God can give it.”
Bro Bon said he shared all this with his cousin who was a seminarian at that time. The cousin in turn shared his experience in the seminary before asking him casually if he had considered joining the priesthood. This took Bro Bon by surprise. The cousin was not one to give up. He urged him to think about it.
“At first I didn’t think much about it but soon I was convinced that by joining the priesthood I would be fulfilling God’s will for my life. By the way, the young seminarian is today Fr Vincent Thomas from the KL Archdiocese’s Vocation Promotion Team.”
It was time to tell his parents what was going on in his heart. His mother was happy but his father worried about the family business. Bon’s brother eventually agreed to take care of the business. Once this was settled Bro Bon’s father too gave his blessings.
“In 2015 my mother suffered a heart failure and passed away. That was also the year I completed Philosophy and moved to St Peter’s College in Kuching to study Theology. I returned to the KL Archdiocese this year. When I look back at those years, the words of prophet Isaiah comes to mind, ‘But now, Lord, you are our Father. We are the clay and you are the potter. All of us are the work of your hand.’” (Isaiah 64:8).
“I had to be shaped in order to see the will of God clearly in my life. So when the formators did this, it was painful but it made me be a better person and a better Christian.”
He said one of the tougher challenge in the seminary was community living which afforded plenty of fraternal corrections. There were times when these led him to bitterness and anger.
“Thankfully there was a lot time for reflection. It opened my eyes to see God’s hand in my life. The most consoling part of this journey is to grow in God’s love and to know that the Church is continually praying for me.”
As a seminarian, Bro Bon was involved in many pastoral works. He enjoyed the stay in Sabah in his second year of Theology studies.
“Here I learned to be thankful for the gift of nature. Sabah is rich in natural resources. The people and nature live in peace. Nature is continually reflected in their attitude and lifestyle. Everyone is calm, collected and polite. This enhances their culture of community living.
“I was also struck by their simple faith rooted in Christ. They seldom depended on the parish priest for their faith development. Instead they made the initiative to grow in their faith. They may not know the doctrine and dogmas of the church but is faithful to Jesus Christ in their way.
“In my third year of Theology I was sent to the Church of the Holy Family in Lapok, Miri, Sarawak. Here in the rural areas the people were happy with the minimum of facilities. Whatever they had was God’s blessing.
“The lesson I hope never to forget is to be always grateful and to appreciate what is given to you. With these values I feel I am more inclined to treat all God’s creation with love and care.
The online masses, while it reached a larger crowd, Bro Bon said that priests – whose primary duty is to be with the people and to minster to their sacramental needs – had no personal encounter with the people.
“I am happy that the churches are reopening now and we will be able to minister the sacraments to the faithful. In the future we need to be ready to face this kind of challenges and remember to not compromise the Gospel values in any circumstances.”
The road less taken
While a vocation to the priesthood is the road less taken, yet Bro Bon said it is one that is full of graces and blessings.
His carefully picked motto for his diaconate ordination is a quote from St Bonaventure: “In all your deeds and words, you should look upon this Jesus as your model”.
“The ultimate joy of this journey is being alter Christus or another Christ to the people you serve. I hope to encourage more vocations by following the footsteps of Christ,” he said.
The above interview was initiated by Wilson Henry, longtime writer and journalist who passed on before he could complete the article. He will be remembered as one who wrote with passion, who handled projects with meticulous care, and whose concern and interest for those afflicted and in distress infectious. Racheal Philip picked up where he left off to complete the write-up.