Fr. Joe: All that is not given is lostView(s):
A champion of social justice and a widely respected priest for all people and all seasons, the Very Reverend Fr. Joe de Mel passed away on Friday at the age of 85.
He hailed from a rich and powerful family with his brothers including the late Navy commander Royce de Mel. Fr. Joe gave up most of those elite privileges to join the seminary in 1948. This came after a brilliant career at St. Joseph’s College where he captained the school’s cricket team and excelled as an athlete, winning the putt shot event at the Public Schools Meet.
“Ever since the youthful Father Joe returned to Sri Lanka in 1953 after priesthood studies, including a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical University, and ordination in Rome, ministry to laity became his mission.
“Such aptitudes of the young priest were harnessed by Cardinal Thomas Cooray to further indegenize archdiocesan ministry. So, from student chaplaincy to youth chaplaincy and all the way to directorship of archdiocesan lay apostolate, with panache he gave leadership to a multiplicity of lay organisations,” says Hector Welgampola, who was the editor of the Catholic Messenger and knew Fr. Joe well.
Fr. Joe was the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Colombo, the rector of the national seminary in Ampitiya and the parish priest of St. Mary’s Bambalapitiya while concurrently overseeing St. Anthony’s Kollupitiya.
“Even as vicar general, he continued to coordinate lay groups comprising more than 1,000 units. They ranged from the apex Catholic Union of Sri Lanka and the Archdiocesan Union to vibrant local networks of YCS, YCW, CWM, CFM, IMCS, ICMICA, SVP and various sodalities, confraternities and guilds.
“An administrator by day, Father Joe sustained his spiritual vigour by sundown as animator of a Charles de Foucould prayer group. Few were aware of the contemplative group which used to meet in the loft of the Colombo Catholic Press, where I worked. The Jesus Caritas buffer of desert spirituality helped him keep sanity in an administrative sanctum. He found a further window of grace in Vatican II and the National Pastoral Convention. He enjoyed the intellectual stimulation as well as the pastoral challenges,” Mr. Welgampola notes.
Most of Fr. Joe’s selfless sacrificial service was in the area of social justice as seen in his appointments. Fr. Joe was the Associate Chaplain of the Social Justice Movement, an Associate Editor of a Social Justice magazine and a national chaplain of the St. Vincent de Paul Society.
His service to the poor and courageous work for social justice finally took him to the Samata Sarana movement which took care of the poorest of the poor. Volunteers of the Samata Sarana would go to street after street in search of people who were suffering without shelter, food or clothing. Samata Sarana provided physical, spiritual and psychological healing for thousands of them.
As a grateful country says goodbye to Fr. Joe tomorrow, he must be somewhere there in the sweet by and by with the Lord Jesus saying to him, “I was hungry, you gave me to eat, I was thirsty you gave me to drink, I was abandoned you gave me a home, welcome to the Kingdom.”
Thank you Fr. Joe. You were an inspiration and an example of an integrated church which goes out of its comfort zone, goes beyond rites and rituals and plays an active role in poverty alleviation, conflict resolution and other issues of social justice. You were a channel of peace; where there was hatred and injustice, you brought love and justice and you gave without expecting anything in return, guided by the vision that all that is not given is lost.
Fr. Joe’s remains will lie at Samata Sarana, 531, Aluth Mawatha Road, Mutwal today (Sunday, March 23) until 8 a.m. tomorrow and then be taken to Archbishop’s House. The funeral will be at the General Cemetery, Kanatte at 2 p.m. tomorrow.