“The world and it’s people will not keep an account of your mistakes”, Fr Peter-John Pearson to Bishop Sylvester David


Solemn Vespers, St Mary’s Cathedral, CAPE TOWN.

23rd August, 2019

At the age of 5, he wrote a concerto for the harpsicord, before he was 10 he published several violin concertos, at the age of 12 he produced his first opera and was invited to conduct the celebrated Salzburg Philharmonic. At 35 he had written 48 symphonies and by the time he died had produced 600 serious bits of music.

For all this prodigious output Mozart lived with the greatest shadows hovering over him. For most of his adult life the spectre of poverty hung over him, he struggled with meaningful relationships, had an unhappy marriage, suffered serious bouts of illness and died in obscurity. Only a handful of mourners attended his funeral and as the cortege left the church an almighty storm broke loose and no one followed the funeral procession to the cemetery with the result that to this day no one is absolutely sure of the site his grave.

Yet, across the world in opera houses and concert halls amidst diverse cultures and throughout the past centuries, no one remembers those details, no one judges his failures or his circumstances, what lives in people’s hearts, what has caused the human spirit to soar, what has pierced cultural darkness and triumphed over despair is the legacy of his music.

Real leaders says Paulo Coelho in one of his novels, leave legacies that liberate.

So take heart Sylvester, take heart as you embark on this ministry of leadership…..the world  and it’s people will not  (as with Mozart) keep an account of your mistakes, they will not remember forever your poor decisions or lapses in judgement, those will fade but they will remember the legacy that your ministry amongst us, shapes. They will remember your ministry on the margins and the way it liberates and offers agency to the poor and those who have no voice in the institutions of power or in the church.

 They will remember the acts of humble service to those whose intellectual journeys and human experiences, force them to raise questions which are awkward and provoke new thinking.

 They will remember the times your legacy liberated hearts that hurt. The times when being in touch with your own humanity: the disturbed, the doubting, the disillusioned felt the arm of a non-judgemental brother around them and the heart of a humble shepherd beat alongside them. In William Sloane Coffins poignant words, ‘those who discover in your ministry that your heart is a little to the left.’ Corragio my brother! It is the Lord who calls and who calls you tonight to the legacy and the liberating presence of the towel and the basin.

Your Oblate brother and friend Ronald Rolheiser reminds us that as Jesus approached the basin and the towel, he took off his outer garments. The reference is not primarily to the Gucchi outfit or the Gammerellis watersilk soutanes, although those were taken off as well. No, he took off, rather, the outer garments, those seductive tentacles of status, of power, of class, of elitist titles, the stirrings of ambition that lurk in our secret places, the outer garments that masquerade under the allure of race and privilege and instead he reached out as a man among others, he touched people like himself and entered a world of unrestricted, unbounded service: where that service, and not the outer garments became the sign of his identity. Sylvester we pray that you will find your identity and your dignity there amongst the smelly calloused feet of the broken, struggling people.

Just two weeks ago that legendary Jesuit theologian, Michael Buckley died.

My generation have written into our hearts that magnificent sermon he preached to a group of Jesuits, where he considered the great needs of the priesthood, the need for ever greater professionalism, for intellectual rigour, for confidence and capabilities that indicated worthiness in any profession. He paused for a moment and compared Jesus’ death to that of Socrates. He noted in passing that Jesus wept over Jerusalem but Socrates never shed a tear over Athens. He noted that Socrates went to his death unflinching, unemotional and stoic. While Jesus went to his death thirsting, crying in desolation, feeling forsaken, suffering in spirit and deeply vulnerable. He told those Jesuits that that truth reversed the normal question for leadership in the Church. It was not so much about whether you are confident, inflexible, capable and strong enough for ministry, but rather are you weak enough, vulnerable enough, to reach out and to become what we touch daily…..the broken Body of Christ. 

Sylvester our prayer for you tonight is not that you will be strong, powerful, strident or politically correct church wise, but that you will, in service, always be weak enough to be in touch with your own humanity, with the places where you experience brokenness, so that you will treasure the fragile humanity of others and not trample on it. That you will be weak enough to know daily your need of God whose dwelling is most often in unexpected sometimes scandalous places. That you will be weak enough to know that there are often more questions than answers and that you do not and will not and need not have all the answers and that that’s ok.

Pope Francis who leads us so wonderfully, so prophetically in these days, bids you especially to increasingly smell like the sheep. Live with us, brother. Smell like us, search with us, struggle with us, offer us your friendship and share your wisdom, knowing all the time that we also have ours. Pray with us, theologise with us on the margins and where you must, lead us gently, step by tentative step, so that together we will journey into the realisation that slowly the kingdom of this world is becoming the Kingdom of our God.

Ad multos annos.

Fr Peter John Pearson – Vicar General of Cape Town Archdiocese



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