When and how did you receive the call to join the priesthood and why did you choose to join the Mill Hill order?
At the age of 12, I was an altar server at a requiem mass in my village for a Bishop who had died in Indonesia. At that time, there was an initiative to build a small shopping center in the village. During the homily, the main celebrant at the mass urged the local people to consider building a care home for the elderly instead. He said that the elderly had done their part for society and now needed attention in their last years. At this mass, I realised that Liturgy and improving the quality of life go hand in hand. It was then that I told my mum that I wanted to be a priest. She said that I should revisit that decision when I was 16, and first get some dancing lessons! So, at the age of 16, I started my formation at the Mill Hill minor seminary in Hoorn and stayed there till the age of 18. Between the age of 18 and 20, I studied philosophy at the Mill Hill College in Roosendaal, and then moved to study theology at Mill Hill in London. After my Deaconate ordination, I was sent as a missionary to Nairobi, Kenya, where I stayed for 18 months. I then enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in Louvain and was sent to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil where I stayed for 5 years. I returned to get my Ph.D. in Louvain and went back to Rio where I stayed for another 6 years. I chose to join the Mill Hill order as I resonated with their mission, values, and philosophy-that religion and the priesthood are not about blindly following the rules and canon law, but it’s about using your intelligence and sound reason to deal with problems and challenges that life throws at you as a priest in the most extreme surroundings of the poor and the privileged.
Fr. Sjaak gave communion to his Mum 35 years ago on his Ordination Day
YOUR LIFE AS A MISSIONARY – ORA ET LABORA
Could you share some reflections of your experience as a missionary in Kenya and Brazil?
My time in Kenya was short and at that time the country was in the throes of widespread violence. Several Mill Hill missionaries who were friends of mine were killed. In Brazil, the Catholic church was a fertile ground for Liberation Theology to flourish. Brazil, in the early 80s, was ruled by a dictator. There were demotivation campaigns to deter priests and religious women from coming to Brazil to help the poor. Life was very challenging. As priests, we were considered subversive by the regime in power. We could not open bank accounts or get phones or driver’s licenses. We had to renew our papers every 6 weeks, and these were filled in by hand by civil servants who deliberately made mistakes so that the papers would be invalid and lead to inordinate delays. Luckily, the dictatorship was opposed by the civil administration and the Brazilian Bishops were on the side of the people of Brazil. The church managed to make the impossible possible through diplomatic channels and international solidarity. Those were the first 5 years of my life as a missionary in Brazil. During the second phase of my time in Rio, we built the Itaguai Cathedral in a poor neighborhood of Rio. That building helped to create better urban planning in a chaotic area.
Fr. Sjaak in Kenya
What have been some of your high points during the last 35 years?
One of the most important highlights of my life has been the day we bought the Church of Our Saviour in the Hague for € 1 !!!! The other highlight was overseeing the project to build the Cathedral in Itaguai. Another highlight which is tinged with sadness was participating in a protest against the massacre of 13 children in Rio by the military police. Artists, footballers, nuns, priests, and local people participated in a silent protest on the streets of Rio. We wore our religious vestments and walked with the people of Brazil. There was a huge samba truck filled with timpani players and they beat the drum 13 times along the march. The whole procession lay flat on the streets. It was symbolic of the dying and rising of these 13 young victims. This demonstration had a tremendous impact, raised awareness across Latin America, and created a bridge between the sacred and the secular.
Buying COS for €1.
What have been some of your low points during the last 35 years?
The scale and intensity of child abuse in the church have damaged the lives of the victims as well as the image of the church. The cover-up and lack of transparency around this issue have changed the lens through which the Catholic Church is seen. As priests, we are often looked at with contempt and treated as predators. Life is not always perfect, and I have had many ups and downs like everyone else, but this issue has by far been the one that has had a very deep impact on me, as it did on many other colleagues.
What gives you the energy to keep going?
In my work and in life, I meet many people and 90% of them are good to be with and energize me. They are fabulous and give me perspectives that enrich me. The other 10% require a lot of energy but to survive that, I really focus on the 90%. Who has had the biggest influence on your vocation so far? Without a doubt, the biggest influence on my vocation has been Pope Francis who leads by example and has set in motion massive changes in the Catholic Church.
AS PASTOR OF THE CHURCH OF OUR SAVIOUR
You have been the Shepherd of the Church of Our Saviour for the last 23 years. What are your most memorable moments?
The huge gatherings at the Easter Sunday masses with over 1400 people are some of the moments that I truly treasure. The joy and celebration are testaments of our Parish Community. I see in the congregation, that every continent is represented, and the diversity of our worshipping community is a blessing. At the same time, there are moments of tragedy and sadness at funerals of old parishioners as well as young people and babies. The intimate moments that are integral to being a pastor include supporting young parents in their sorrow upon losing a child or being with them as they bury their stillborn babies with dignity and respect for the beauty of a frail and fragile life.
What do you hope to see our community contributing to the universal church? Our energy, among other things, comes from the outreach programs that we have – the Refugee project, the Soup Kitchen in Rotterdam, and the Meals for the Homeless in The Hague. It is heartening to see the generosity of time, talent, money, and resources that the parishioners put into helping the vulnerable in our society. That is the credibility of our community. The projects that we have been focused exclusively on Charity as we believe that we do not want the poor to pay for the big home that we occupy and use. When you see the income and expenses statement of our parish, 25% of our income goes into charitable causes and initiatives as well as solidarity with the Diocese. The Advent Giving Tree, the Food Fair, and the Lenten Campaign are all aimed at charity for the poor across the world (as is the case with the Food Fair). If we focus on the poor and marginalized in our society, and are generous to them, we will serve a purpose to remain a Church. The volunteers in our parish make this possible through the gifts of their time and talents. These are the fruits of our faith. This is Ora et Labora – Faith and Action go hand in hand. During the pandemic, they offered helping hands when many doors were closed.
Fr. Sjaak at the World Youth Day in Madrid
How would you like to be remembered by future generations of the COS?
A Christian needs to be humble, have a sense of humor, and have his/her feet on the ground. The 3 words that come to mind are, Freedom, Fun, and Faith. We should live the joy of the Gospel and share the burdens of our fellow pilgrims. We should also share the joys that life gives all of us. In sharing, one is never alone. On the matter of Freedom – we should not have blind obedience to the rules. We have the gift of our conscience and if we use it wisely and critically, we will make well-balanced decisions and have a sense of fulfillment. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. Mill Hill helps me to make reasonable decisions which I use in my pastoral work. We shouldn’t feel oppressed or stuck in an institution if we’re not happy. If you’re not free to leave, you’re not free to stay!
YOUR ROLE AS AN EVANGELIZER – AS YOU WALK THE TALK…. You are very involved with the secular world in your work on the Board of Auxilia Brasilia, the Supervisory Board of Cordaid, and the Board of the Societeit de Witte, among other organizations too many to mention here. How would you explain your roles in these organizations and why do you feel it is important to dedicate your time to them? Have you seen any changes due to your presence with these organizations? My roles in the organizations that I belong to are very different. In Cordaid I am responsible for supervising that the money from donors goes to the beneficiaries without any unnecessary operational or administrative costs so that the beneficiaries receive the maximum amounts to address their needs. De Witte is a purely secular society in The Hague and has been around since 1802. I am the first priest on the Board, and I recently gave a talk on how we can bridge the gap between the secular and the sacred. My presence naturally creates a sense of curiosity and sometimes changes the conversations at the Board level. We discuss the ways that this group of people with ‘’noblesse oblige’’ can give back to society and it is heartening to see that they are eager to do so. It is a way to connect slums with palaces, and my experiences in Kenya and Rio provide them with a context of how the divide between the haves and the have -nots can be bridged. The Refugee Monument in our Church Garden is a living example of Cordaid’s role in creating the bridge between the secular and the sacred.
How do you explain the relevance of the Catholic Church to young people who are searching for answers and do not believe in any specific religion?
When I work with the Marriage Preparation Program in our Parish, I often see couples where one is a believer and the other is not. Religion and Faith are two different things. Couples come together because they discover that they have common values even if they do not both belong to the Christian faith. I also see people who do not have either religion or faith have a strong connection with protecting our environment. They are involved with causes for the common good. We find each other in shared values and in the doing of good whenever we have the opportunity to do so. All this can be considered sacred without the religious overtones.
Would you describe yourself as a progressive priest?
I am not too keen on labels. I would like to describe myself as an open-minded priest. Progress and moving forward are good, but progress is not always aimed at the greater good of mankind. Being progressive as opposed to staying conservative tends to spill into the political arena. One should not lose oneself in terminology and what’s not important.
What challenges do you face as a priest of the 21st Century?
Scandals within the church continue to challenge us. Many priests say that they are lonely. However, I am lucky as the average age in our parish is young and this means the energy is great. The presence of the church is being phased out of society and it is difficult for a lot of my colleagues to feel useful or relevant in a secular environment.
How do you think the church today can attract more young people to religious life? Young people today want to see a connection between solidarity and spirituality. The Church can be considered an ‘’inspired NGO’’. Our inspiration comes from the values of the Gospel. Inspiration is the value addition that makes the church relevant in today’s world. Secondly, a review of celibacy and the ordination of women are important changes that are needed to make the Eucharist available to all. As long as celibacy continues to dominate the church, there will be a paucity of male candidates to the priesthood. Offering ordination to people who are not celibate or male will enable the Eucharist to be available to a lot of people. Above all, we need to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through our lives that exudes joy. Christ must be recognizable in us as we go about our daily lives. A priest who does not have a personal relationship with Christ is not fully alive. Hierarchy, status, and all the other trappings of a regimented religious society hamper our relationship with Christ and the people.
What is the single achievement you are most proud of in your career/life?
Surviving as a Catholic priest for 35 years! (laughs)
If you had your time over again, would you do anything differently?
Not much but I would have liked a bit of more free time perhaps.
Any message to your friends and alumni all over the world reading this interview? Your Urbi et Orbi?
In the Church, we are all millionaires! This means that we are the custodians of art, music, spiritual treasures, hospitals, schools, universities, and places of worship all over the world. We own these treasures and are responsible for their upkeep. They connect us to previous generations, and we should be humbled and in awe to pass them on to the next generations. Through them, we continue to invest in beauty, character, morals, art, and music. We should add to the beauty of the world around us through the aesthetics of our Catholic heritage as we are born or welcomed into that tradition. All over the world, we have beautiful places of worship sometimes surrounded by slums or favelas. Art is also translated into a lifestyle in the way that we treat each other. We experience images of art and music, but we shouldn’t forget that we are all created in the image of God. This is what we should constantly recognize – the presence of God in people we meet in our day-to-day lives, that is the true wealth of the Church.
Any message to the younger generation relating to their roles as Christians in the world?
I hope that younger generations discover their roles as joyful Christians and see themselves as millionaires and custodians of the treasures that have been handed down to them. They can use their intellect and intelligence in the practice of their faith. The essence of the Resurrection is visible when you take the weight of the cross from the shoulders of people. We should be ready to carry each other’s crosses. When we do that, we re-enact the Resurrection of Jesus and raise each other up again.
Congratulations Father Sjaak on your 35th Ordination Anniversary. God bless you and keep you safe, sane, and healthy for many years to come.
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