Rev Fr John Gnanapiragasam passed away after a heart attach on Nov 19 at his family home in Seremban. He would have been 77 on Nov 30. His 50th sacerdotal anniversary was to be on Dec 27. Here is a tribute.
By Dorothy Balachandran NOV 24, 2021
I met Fr John in 1987 after I became the second Choice coordinator for the KL Archdiocese, succeeding Pamela Nair, at a time when Frs Michael Chai, John Gnanapiragasam and Moses Lui were the presenting priests for the Choice weekends, with other priests assisting with the Sacrament of Reconciliation. My late younger brother, Lawrence Balachandran, had encouraged me to attend Choice 25 in 1986, after which we served on the team together.
Fr John had just come back from his sabbatical leave in the US and he continued his wholehearted involvement in team formation and presented at numerous weekends including Choice KL 33, 34, 36, 38, 39, and 40 during my tenure as coordinator. He invited new couples – Betty and Raj Theodore, Anne and Nelson Dass, and Nesa and Louis Danasamy – to attend the Choice weekends with the aim of joining then-presenting couples Christina and Aloysius Loo, and Karin and Kenneth Tan.
He had boundless energy, loved the Church and the Sacraments dearly, took joy in his priestly ministry and was quick to identify singles and couples for the Choice team. He also wanted as many seminarians as possible to experience a Choice weekend. Many did and later became presenting priests, with some becoming directors of the Archdiocesan Single Adults and Youth Office (Asayo), with Choice coming under its ambit.
He was foresighted in initiating weekends for specific groups of single adults. As temporary assisting priest of the Church of Our Lady of Fatima in Brickfields and seminary Professor at College General in Penang, he helmed Choice 36 to enable four seminarians on pastoral duties at the parish – Mari Arokiam, Christopher Wilvaraj, Raymond Pereira and Raymond Chong – as well as singles who needed a Choice experience to participate in one. Even wheelchair-bound Bathmavati, of the Hindu faith and currently a Senator, benefited from that weekend. He had years before organised a similar Choice weekend for the parish with many of the Choicees consequently serving on the various Choice teams and becoming actively involved in church.
He invited the Tamil-speaking Choicees at Our Lady of Fatima to help him initiate Choice Tamil at the Infant Jesus Convent in Port Dickson. Choice 35 (Terengganu) followed. It was his original idea but he allowed Fr Moses Lui at the latter’s request to be the presenting priest. Subsequently, as professor of the initiation year seminarians at the Good Shepherd Seminary in Melaka, he requested for Choice Melaka 16 to be held at the seminary for the seminarians including Michael Dass, Mark Michael, Albet Arockiasamy, Peter Ng, Jude Miranda and Terrence Thomas, who are now priests. Then just before Choice KL 40, he took the peninsula team to Kuching for their Choice 4 weekend.
Responding spontaneously and instantly to those who required counselling and support came naturally to him. He gave generously of his time while cultivating close and long-lasting relationships.
What I learned from this deeply committed gifted priest were so many aspects of the Catholic Church that I had had little or no knowledge of. I had become the coordinator of an archdiocesan programme without any earlier involvement in church ministries, having served for five years as a government school teacher in Pahang and attending only weekend masses in KL.
Fr John, aware of this, was instrumental in drawing me progressively into the life of the Church through the parish RCIA sessions, Catholic charismatic prayer group, and the new Students, Youth and Single Adults Ministry (SYSAM) he had formed in the Church of Our Lady of Fatima, with couple-advisors for all three groups. When the parish celebrated its 25th anniversary in 1988, I had come to know so many parishioners personally and experienced great joy in that celebration. It was also my collective positive experiences that contributed towards my desire to serve the Church as an Auxiliary of the Apostolate– a vocation for lay single women.
Fr John gave me a Bible, as well as the Vatican II Weekday and Sunday missals to help me appreciate the Word of God and participate more meaningfully in the Eucharistic celebrations, as I had already begun going for daily masses and attending other formation programmes. In fact, it was at his invitation that I commentated for the first time at a mass during a Choice formation programme and later presented at an RCIA session.
In 1995, he organised a pilgrimage to Manila for the World Youth Day not only for youths but also for parents and anyone else interested to participate. Together with many, I had the golden opportunity of experiencing the presence of the Holy Father, Pope John Paul II, at that unique event.
The year that followed saw me being invited to be on the secretariat of the Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Convention II (PMPC II) from Aug 30 to Sept 2. It was another new experience of Church for me. For his knowledge and deep involvement, he was often playfully called Fr John NEWBEC (A New Way of Being Church).
Not long after, he was appointed the first director of the Archdiocesan Pastoral Institute at the newly built Archdiocesan Pastoral Centre (APC) in Jalan Robertson, Kuala Lumpur. I was again privileged to participate, together with many others, in his Theology course called the Diploma Formation Programme that ran for four consecutive years, from the basic level. He had the PMPC II vision-mission statement printed boldly on the wall of APC.
In 2000, when his elder brother, then Fr James Gnanapiragasam, was the parish priest of Our Lady of Fatima and Fr John himself was the administrator of the Church of the Holy Rosary in Brickfields, the two parishes had a joint celebration of the Sacrament of Confirmation at OLF. Both brothers assisted Archbishop Murphy Pakiam in administering the Sacrament to the over 100 Confirmands. I was one of the Confirmation teachers. With his elder brother, he had a very evidently close loving relationship, and he often joked that Fr James had the brains while he had the looks, and then later after his doctorate claimed that he now had both!
He loved a quote by then Archbishop Anthony Soter Fernandez – Be, beget and be gone – and often used it to emphasise that we too needed to move on to other ministries when it was time to do so. We both did just that in the years that followed and moved on to areas of service other than Choice.
Fr John undoubtedly had his fair share of weaknesses and shortcomings, but they did not deter him from giving of his best in terms of his convictions and his priestly ministry. He often used the phrases “be present to” and “journey with” others. Psalm 23 was a favourite, which he described as one he knew by heart and prayed daily first thing on waking up.
Dear Fr John Gnanapiragasam, just as goodness and mercy followed you all the days of your life, may you now dwell in the house of the Lord forever enjoying that well-deserved rest, while your loved ones cherish the pleasant experiences and umpteen memories of you.
We at Journey With Us – Asia offer our sincere condolences to the family, friends and all who knew Rev Fr John Gnanapiragasam. May his soul rest in peace.