DECEMBER 6, 1273. It’s not a date that immediately jumps out at the average person, but those intimately connected with the life of St Thomas Aquinas know its significance.
Although he is said to have written one of the world’s greatest intellectual achievements in Western civilisation – the Summa Theologiae – St Thomas Aquinas abruptly ended his writing endeavours before he died.
After celebrating Mass on December 6, 1273, the theologian saw a heavenly revelation that brought him into a deep silence.
“I can write no more,” St Thomas told a friend, Reginald. “I have seen things that make my writings like straw.”
Divine Word Missionary Father Frank Gerry has come up against a similar struggle to describe what has been an extraordinary 60 years of priestly life.
He hasn’t always been tongue-tied.
For his silver jubilee, Fr Frank penned a 123-page memoir detailing where God had taken him for the first 50 years of his life.
When he had clocked up 50 years of priestly life, he was inspired to publish another book, this time 205 pages thick, which included a selection of writings and poems.
“And there’s no one more surprised than myself that I could write two books,” Fr Frank said about his writing escapades.
But now, at 86 and entering his 60th year of priestly life, Fr Frank feels, like St Thomas Aquinas, that he can write no more.
“It’s not an emptiness and it’s not because you don’t have words,” he said.
“It’s something else, something that’s touched the deeper level of life, the heart.
“Silence is the hidden treasure. When you find it, you’re willing to sell everything.”
As a missionary who has lived and served the Church around the globe, silence has touched Fr Frank’s life before with varying shades of pain.
After leaving for the Divine Word Missionaries’ seminary in Iowa when he was 16, his parents dropped in for a visit three years later.
They had already given away one son to the priesthood, the late Bishop John Gerry, and now another was being taken away.
When Frank asked his mum how she felt about her young boy’s choice to leave the family and become a priest, her reply was: “God gives them to us and then he takes them away”.
“And I, as a 19-year-old boy, just a young lad, said, ‘Mum, how can you say that in such detachment?’” Fr Frank said.
“Then there was silence for a while. Then my father said, ‘Yeah, but it hurts’.”
After that night, Fr Frank’s only connection with his family was through letters, all penned by his mum.
The silence was painful but unavoidable.
“After seven years I was ordained in 1958, and that was our first phone call in seven years,” Fr Frank said. “The day I was ordained we had a phone call from the family.
“They could have talked to me (before) but it was expensive, so it was just my ordination day.”
Shortly after his ordination, Fr Frank was in China for two weeks, a trip that triggered a remarkable memory from his childhood.
“My father had a knack of naming people,” he said. “My sister above me, Margaret, he called her ‘Nursey’, and she became a nurse.
“And for a couple of years when I was two or three years of age, he called me his ‘little Chinese missionary’.”
Though his father never remembered giving him that nickname, Fr Frank believes it was nothing short of prophetic.
Fr Frank was 13 when he decided he would give his life to the Church as a missionary priest.
He made the decision after reading a front-page story in The Catholic Weekly detailing the horrific death of more than 100 missionary sisters, brothers and priests aboard the Japanese prison ship Dorish Maru.
The ship went under attack by an allied fighter-bomber near Wewak, Papua New Guinea.
On board were members of the Divine Word Missionaries priests and brothers and the Holy Spirit Missionary Sisters, both founded by Catholic priest Fr Arnold Janssen.
Three years later, at the tender age of 16, Fr Frank entered the Divine Word Missionaries seminary in Marburg, Queensland, where he met a survivor of the Dorish Maru attack.
During Fr Frank’s 60-year life as a missionary, he has worked for more than 20 years in Australia and has spent several years in the Philippines.
He was elected provincial in 1986 for six years.
As the order’s provincial, he helped open a province in the Philippines, a country that would eventually change his life forever.
After providing formation for priests and brothers in Australia, the order sent him to be an assistant novice master in the Philippines.
Fr Frank, who was “just on 50”, was at “a low point in my life”.
“One of the priests was going down every month to the garbage dump, the little village in the garbage dump, so I went along with him so I can get in touch with the local Filipinos,” he said.
“After going there for some time I felt awkward, in a whole new situation, I couldn’t speak the language at that stage, and I didn’t know if I’d be sick with the things I saw or whether the people thought I’d come as a tourist to look at them.
“And after three months one of the women came to me and said, ‘Father, we’ve been noticing you. We hope you keep coming’.
“I thought to myself, ‘How did you know the anxiety within me?’
“After a time I realised why I went to the garbage dump – I felt I was the garbage dump …
“I had to face my own poverty, and going to the poor people, they taught me how to live with my poverty.
“In the garbage dump there was a little chapel dedicated to the Resurrection, amid all that decay there was a little chapel dedicated to the Resurrection, and the Resurrection had to occur in me, through the poor people.
“Going to the Philippines was the grace of my life and I’m deeply grateful to them.”
No doubt the garbage dump will be at the forefront of Fr Frank’s prayers which, like St Thomas Aquinas, is all the retired priest has left to offer the Church.
“I find prayer could be the major contribution I can make at this stage of my life – prayer for friends, people – just prayer,” he said.
“I can’t act in any other way.
“I don’t think I’ll write any more but I think prayer is the attraction to make use of this time of my life in a creative, caring and helpful way.”