‘Why me? Why me?’

By Anne B. Gubuan

This is the vocation story of Fr Finbar Maxwell from Ballyfermot, Dublin, Ireland, who was ordained as a Columban priest in 1988. The author is Assistant Editor of MISYONonline.com.

Anne, far left, Father Finbar, far right, Pililla, Rizal, 28 September 2016

I am always spellbound listening to vocation stories.  They are almost always stories of faith and courage, the pain of letting go and braving the oceans of a missionary journey. What makes these stories extra fascinating for me is the fact that these missionaries leave their families without the promise of going back to be with them again.  I don’t think I have or will ever have that kind of courage.

Pilgrims L to R: Fr Paul Glynn, Regional Director since 23 November, 2016, Fr Finbar Maxwell, Noh Hye-in Anna, Fr Vincent Busch
Frs Paul and Finbar are Irish, Fr Vincent American and Anna, a Columban Lay Missionary, Korean.

I had the privilege of listening to Fr Finbar Maxwell’s vocation story on the bus during our pilgrimage to Paete and Pililla last September. Father Finbar had spent 20 years as Columban missionary priest in Pakistan, and four years ago he was sent to the Philippines and is currently Vice-Rector at the Columban House of Studies in Cubao, Quezon City.

As a teenager in his native Dublin, Ireland, he was deeply involved in his home parish, especially the social services in their community, including care for the elderly, to whom he was particularly dedicated. Every day he would stop and visit them. With other young people he would make himself available for activities like decorating their church for Sunday Mass.

During his involvement in the parish he was inspired and encouraged by Fr Arthur O'Neill, the priest coordinating church events and activities.  Over time he began to think ‘I’d like to do that – live my life as a priest’.

The Calling of St Matthew, Caravaggio [Wikipedia]

As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man named Matthew sitting at the customs post. He said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him. (Matthew 9:9)
Father Finbar sometimes uses this painting in giving retreats.

He told his parents that he would like to go for the come-and-see weekend at St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, where young men interested in knowing the Columbans  are invited and given an orientation and overview about Columban life and mission. His parents were a bit surprised, but supportive. ‘The week I entered the Columbans I told my brothers. One younger brother responded, surprised, “What – you?”’ His brothers, though, were also supportive.  His parents however, did say, ‘If it’s not for you, always feel free to return home.’

St Columban’s, Dalgan Park, Navan, Ireland

Smiling, Father Finbar recounted his earlier days as it grew into his Columban vocation. Though there was much that was new to him, the Columban way of life opened up to him. From his first come-and-see weekend, he was fully aware that Columbans were missionaries and that they would be sent on mission overseas. A point came at an early stage in his formation journey when that reality came to him at a deeper, emotional level, and that eventually leaving his home country would be a leap he would have to make. Initially, a difficult part of that ‘leap’ would be leaving his family, and leaving all that was familiar. He wrestled with this for a year during his early formation, and talked about it openly during spiritual direction. The Lord, however, provided him with an experience that was to bring great clarity and freedom to him, in making this leap into an ‘overseas’ life as a Columban on mission.

Inis Mór, the largest of the Aran Islands [Wikipedia]

He recalled: I think it was for me a ‘why me’ moment. I kept asking God, ‘Why me? Why me? How can I be sure, why me?’  During my summer vacation I went for a week to the Aran Islands. It’s a very beautiful but lonely spot off the west coast of Ireland. I went for a holiday by myself and also to give myself time to think. One evening at about 6 o’clock, I read a story in the book ‘As Bread That Is Broken’ by Peter Van Breemen.  It was a beautiful summer evening and I was sitting on a rock, overlooking the Atlantic.

View over Inis Mór, looking towards the Cliffs of Moher on the mainland [Wikipedia]

The story was about a young man who was asked by the king to go to a faraway place to deliver a message. He was told by the king that he would meet difficulties on the way, but that he was to give the message to the faraway kingdom and then, on his return, report back to the king. On the way the young man met many trials, and he kept saying, ‘Why me? Why did the king choose me to deliver this message?’ That’s what resonated with me in the story. I felt the young man was asking my question. There I was, sitting on this rock, overlooking the ocean, with the evening sun in the sky; I was reading this book and suddenly thought, ‘Oh my gosh!’ At the end of the story the young man reports back to the king. And the king asked, ‘Did anything happen to you on the way?’ and he said, ‘Well, I delivered the message but these doubts and questions arose, “Why me, why me?”’ and the king said, ‘Why not you? I could have chosen anyone but I chose you’.

At that moment I felt a real sense of illumination. Something hit me, and I felt like scales had fallen from my eyes. That moment I closed the book, went back to the guest house where I was staying, packed my bag, and the next day I left the island. A couple of weeks later I returned to a new academic year in our Columban formation house. And many years later, here I am now.

East Beach, Inis Mór [Wikipedia]

Finishing Father Finbar’s vocation story, I can’t help but look back and think about my almost two decades working for MISYONonline.com.  Those two decades have allowed me to meet and encounter the Columban Fathers, become friends with them, become part of their family. Like many of them that I have gotten to know, Father Finbar radiates this kind of joy of being a missionary priest who has given up so much to follow where Jesus has called him to be.  

About three weeks before I wrote this, my son Gabriel and I attended a beginning-of-the year retreat. Before that three-day retreat we had our penitential rite and that’s when my son expressed to me, ‘I think I would want to become a priest’. It was way too surreal for me to take seriously, but that particular afternoon at the retreat, during the call for vocations my son stood up. My mind swirled a bit as I received congratulations from our church companions, some of them grinning, most of them teary-eyed. My son is only 11. Nothing is too certain yet. But Father Finbar started thinking about it when he was an active youth member in his parish. I think I, too, would want my son to have his own ‘Why Me?’ moments in the near future.

Fr Raymond Husband, Rector, and Fr Finbar Maxwell, Vice-Rector, Columban House of Studies