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The real meaning of the word ‘disciple’

Photo by: William H. Sadlier, Inc.

La Horquetta parish priest Fr Dwight Merrick reflects on the meaning of missionary discipleship. October was declared by Pope Francis the Church’s Extraordinary Missionary Month.

Somewhere around 1998, the Fraternity of Priests, an international organisation with a chapter here in T&T, held our annual retreat with Fr Thomas ‘Tom’ Forrest CSsR our retreat master.

Fr Thomas ‘Tom’ Forrest CSsR (deceased)

He arrived a bit under the weather with 50 prepared talks which he carried everywhere with an aim to deliver as many of them as he could manage. There would be no after-lunch siesta as we were accustomed to and it would be business all week if we let him have his way.

Soon enough we were off and running with some of the most instructive and insightful talks I have ever heard from any teacher, preacher or lecturer.

Some of his statements I still remember vividly after 21 years.

“There is no priest crisis only priests who want to be star boys for Hollywood and for Jesus at the same time and it just doesn’t work that way,” he said to us. With his exciting teaching on discipleship, there was just too much to catch everything, but I wrote profuse notes and tried my best.

What I did get however, continues to serve almost every retreat I have ever done, so profoundly did these talks affect my life and my priesthood.

By far the most impactful teaching I ever received was his talk on ‘What is a disciple’.

Every parishioner or group member to whom I have pastored since 1998, has heard some version of this talk at least a few times. Fr Tom explained in detail the strategy of discipleship used by the Jews we speak about so casually without a clue of what it means.

Jewish young men, we heard, were constantly looking out for a highly respected senior man whom they wanted to imitate and hold as a master. A man whose life they considered a masterpiece and deserving of their life’s effort in learning to become that man’s disciple.

This man they would love more than their father who gave them life because he taught them how to live their life. To become a replica of the master would entail living in a commune where there are no other influences except those of the master, so that a voluntary brainwashing as it were, would take place.

The aim would be to become just as the master: to walk, talk, think and behave just like the master in every way. Having paid this price, a disciple would be privileged to write in his master’s name since he would do so literally with his master’s mind (as many chapters of the Book of Isaiah would testify).

I was never taught that there was so much to the term ‘disciple’, which therefore really needs proper explanation for every Christian.

No going back and forth between one’s home and family and then one’s master. The disciple lives with the master 24/7, as they say and wants nothing but to become the master in time. What a revelation! What clarity! It was as if I had been waiting to hear this my whole life.

In my life through childhood, and all through my teenage years and up to my Baptism in the Spirit at age 20, I had been attending Mass religiously either taken or old enough to go on my own but was searching for God persistently.

Fr Dwight Merrick, parish priest at La Horquetta RC Church

Then hands were laid on me through the UWI prayer group by Ian Taylor and Michael Moses RIP (not yet priests) and my whole world was turned right side up.

It was a homecoming like none before or since and without words to explain. All I wanted to do by the end of that prayer session, was help other people find Jesus, the way He found me.

Fast forward 13 years by which time I had become a priest and still there was something missing. This was the answer.

As a disciple of Jesus, I do not need to fit into everybody’s camp. I do not need to be acceptable to everybody’s idea of being magnanimous. I do not need to be comfortable with everybody’s brand of spirituality. I do not need to worship with everybody and pretend it is all good, or that we are more alike than we are different.

I especially do not need to engage in exercises pretending that I am lost in darkness looking for the light. I know God and have regular personal encounters with Him for which I will not apologise. I have a personal relationship with Jesus and feel privileged for Him to use me in ways I could never have imagined.