Father John Rovers came to the Cook Islands in 1957 aged 29. He was then one of nine young Dutch priests serving in the Cook Islands.
He learned our culture well and spoke Cook Islands Maori fluently. He officiated at the baptisms, marriages and deaths of countless people, as well as participating in the general life of his “flock” and beyond.
He held positions of leadership both in his congregation and in the diocese. Well-known for his great sense of humour and his joyful disposition, Father John was a great witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ, who “came that we might have life and have it to the full”. (John 10:10). This life, Father John proclaimed in words, as well as exemplifying it in his deeds and in his personal life.
Some people remember him as a man of the people, radiating joy all around him “no matter what.”
Others recall his dedication to education, and his faith, as he urged catechists and young people, especially, to study and to learn the Scriptures and to be true to their faith.
Father John died in Mauke in November 2016, aged 88, leaving Father Damian Marinus SSCC now also aged 88, as the last surviving Dutch priest in the Cook Islands. The latter lives at St Mary’s parish, Arorangi.
Most people knew Father John as a Catholic priest. He was more than that. What may not be so well known is that he was also a member of a religious order, The Congregation of the Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary (SSCC) founded in Paris, France in 1800 by Father Coudrin and Henriette Aymer de Chevalerie.
At the risk of losing their necks (literally). in the years following the French Revolution, (1789 - 1799) these two founders formed a society of priests, Brothers and Sisters whose particular mission was “to contemplate, live and proclaim God’s love in the world.” – an aim which ran counter- to the blood shed of the French Revolution.
The irony of the era of the French Revolution as far as the Church was concerned, was that despite the persecution of priests, the closing of monasteries and convents, and the movement to eradicate Christianity, there sprang forth instead, a vigorous growth of many new Congregations of religious priests, Brothers and Sisters. It was also the case of the Congregation to which I belong: The Sisters of St Joseph of Cluny, founded in France in 1807 and still serving in the Cook Islands since 1895. Four of the more recent Catholic Bishops serving in the Cook Islands, including our present Bishop, Paul Donoghue SM belonged to the Society of Mary, (The Marist Fathers), a Religious Congregation founded in France in 1816.
Father John’s Congregation established several foundations outside of France: the Netherlands (Holland) in 1892, Hawaii in 1825 and Belgium in 1840. Since 1894 when the first Catholic missionary priest, Father Bernadin Castanie SSCC first came to the Cook Islands, this Congregation (also known as the “Picpus Fathers”) has sent 41 priests and two Brothers to minister in the Cook Islands. A plaque commemorating their names can be found on the front lawns of St Mary’s Catholic Church in Arorangi.
According to their website, there are now over 1500 in the Congregation made up of priests, brothers and Sisters serving in over 30 countries throughout the world.
The most famous member of this Congregation is Belgian Saint Damien de Veuster (1840-1889) whose life story is portrayed in the film Molokai: The Story of Father Damien, starring David Wenham (1999)
Saint Damien worked for the improvement of the life of the lepers on the island of Molokai, Hawaii. He contracted leprosy and died among his people. He became a canonized saint in 2009.
When we consider that someone like Father John left his homeland, his family and friends and all that was familiar to him on the other side of the world, in order to come and minister and live among us, we could well ask what motivated him to do so. And more than that: what kept him faithful to his ministry in the Cook Islands for nearly 60 years?
Father John was a “Religious” priest. i.e. he belonged to a Religious Congregation whose members take the three vows of obedience, chastity and poverty. This is a special vocation of giving one’s all, in order to follow in the footsteps of Christ who was obedient, chaste and poor.
Different people are called to live their Christian lives differently. The vowed life is one special way of living one’s Christianity. It is not the only way. Nor is everyone suited to it. Some Religious priests, Brothers and Sisters do leave and change their direction, especially when they come to know that the vowed life is not for them.
Diocesan priests like Fr Freddy Kaina, for example - those who do not belong to a Religious Congregation, do not take vows. However, they promise obedience to their Bishop and according to the present rules of the Church, they also promise to live a celibate life and promise not to marry. They are allowed to own property.
However, the call to live a Vowed Life is a central aspect of those who choose to become “Religious” members. They choose this life freely. Father John was faithful to the choice he made and stayed with his Congregation until his death.
The vow of Obedience for a member of a Religious Congregation, means that Religious put aside their own will in all humility, and seek instead to do God’s Will as Jesus did. “For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the Will of Him who sent me.” (John 6:38)
“He (Jesus) emptied Himself…humbled Himself…became obedient to the point of death.”(Phil2:7-8)
God’s will for the Religious is manifested through an openness and prayerful dialogue with their leaders (“Superiors”) The leader has the last say. God’s Will is also shown in the circumstances of one’s life.
Living a prayerful life and being open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit of God helps a person recognise what this will might be.
The vow of Chastity is a vow to love. It means the wholehearted acceptance of God’s love, thus making God the centre of one’s whole life and concern. From this love then flows a non-exclusive, self-less giving love for one’s neighbour, especially the poor and those in need. As always, it is God’s Grace through the power of the Holy Spirit which enables a person called to it, to live this vow joyfully, faithfully and wholeheartedly. The vow excludes the right to marry. Self-knowledge and personal integrity calls for honesty, great faith and deep love, in discerning one’s vocation to live such a life.
Lastly, the vow of “Poverty” is an invitation to live a life of freedom from both the desire and the possession of power, wealth and prestige. It does not mean destitution. Vowed Religious cannot own property or money for themselves and can only accept this for the good of the whole community.
Father John chose to follow Christ obedient, chaste and poor in the Vowed Life. This was the driving motivation and the guidance to all that he was and did as a priest and pastor. The support and challenges of his community members, the leadership of his Congregation and the Constitutions he lived by, all helped to keep before him, the vision of his Congregation: “to contemplate, live and proclaim God’s love in the world.”
During his lifetime Jesus proclaimed: “I have come to set the world on fire and how I wish it were already blazing!” (Luke 12:49) This fire of love lit by Jesus has not been extinguished because a multitude of people, down the ages have felt inspired to respond to the call to carry this flame of light and love “to the ends of the earth”.
Such a person was Father John Rovers. He was a good man, a man of the people, a man of God.
“Aere ra, te Metua John. E pure mai koe no matou. Ko Te Atua te Aroa” (Farewell, Father John. Pray for us. God is Love).
Sr. Elizabeth Browne-Russell sjc
- (For the Catholic Church.)