First profession……. Erick Niyiragira 29th January, 2012.
By Brian Traynor CP

Civil war broke our in Burundi in 1993, when Erick Niyiragira was five years old and Erick, his mother Rose and three younger brothers made a hurried and frightened escape to Tanzania, where they spent the next twelve years in a refugee camp. They were separated from Erick’s Dad and lived those years in hope that he was alive.

Under the guidance of his mother Rose, Erick became very involved in a number of church activities in the camp and by the age of fifteen he was a catechist and youth and choir leader with a profound experience of living with and amid suffering and hardship. He held a deep desire to become a priest and was most concerned that this might not come about when the family was granted full immigration status by the Australian government in 2005.

Two years later, Erick’s Dad, Andrew was located and was able to rejoin his family in Adelaide. Erick was nineteen and he had not seen his Dad since he was five! A way opened up now for Erick to pursue his vocation, knowing that his family had their father to assist in their care.

After a lengthy discernment, Erick joined the Passionists in Templestowe, as a postulant in 2010, and began his novitiate in Glen Osmond, just over twelve months ago. He has been blessed this past year to have had the benefit of wonderful mentors (Fr Willy Estraza from the Philippines and Fr Tomy Kanjarathungal from India as novice masters). He has had supportive classmates (Joseph and John Baptist (from Vietnam), the hospitable leadership of the local community leader (Tiernan), the full and active support of the local Passionist community and so many helpful friends, members of the Passionist family and the Adelaide Archdiocese.

All of this was celebrated in a powerful way on Sunday night when Erick professed his vows for three years as a Passionist. He will now continue with his formation and when these three years have expired if he and the Congregation have continued to discern that this is his vocation, Erick will take final vows and begin the final stage of preparation for priesthood.

There was a time when ‘first profession’, was a relatively private ceremony, rather than a public celebration. If we ever wanted to know why we have changed, being present on Sunday night provided the answer. St Paul’s church was packed with a wide variety of people, young and old from different cultures, representing a variety of association with the Passionists and they included religious from different Congregations, diocesan priests and Archbishop Philip Wilson who declared, “I wanted to be here”.

The African singing, swaying and dancing during the liturgy was uplifting and in fact, it was somewhat embarrassing to many of us who admitted our conservative ‘stiffness’ during songs of joy stands in such contrast to many other cultures who sing and move with prayerful enthusiasm and energy.

Fr Joachim led the liturgy and preached a significant message which hopefully he can be encouraged to share in the Province newsletter. As Provincial, it was Joachim’s responsibility to accept Erick’s vows and this was done with great solemnity. Following Erick’s declaration of commitment, Joachim affixed a Passionist sign to Erick’s religious habit, and presented him with a Passionist profession cross. These symbols are powerful reminders of the first vow Erick made, “to promote the living memory of the Passion of Jesus Christ”.

Following this, a large cross was placed on Erick’s shoulder and a crown of thorns on his head, and he slowly processed to the rear of the church and back. Many found this a very moving moment and Erick himself said he was almost overwhelmed as he filed past his parents and various friends, parishioners, Passionist sisters and brothers and could sense who this commitment was for and how he had been strengthened.

Towards the end of the liturgy Erick led us in the song “May the Passion of Jesus Christ”, and in a warm and grateful speech, gave thanks to those who have walked with him on his journey of faith. He expressed appreciation for those who travelled significant distances to be present.

Michael Walter and Sarah Cosgrove are part of the Victorian Youth Team and members of the Doncaster Antioch group to which Erick belonged in Melbourne and they were present for the profession, as were two young men, Ryan and Michael who are discerning their vocation. Maree Butler and Dennis and Mary Cougle were also present. Many who have assisted Erick during his novitiate with various classes, were present as were the Christian Brothers and their representatives who assisted him so much in his vocational discernment. Friends from his old school (CBC Wakefield Street) were also present. A number of professed Passionists from other communities were present along with the local community and the Passionist sisters.

One of the priests who was present indicated the powerful nature of the ceremony by saying that he was more moved by Erick’s profession than his own ordination! A part of the reason for that may be why this brief account of the event began with a short description of Erick’s story. Erick’s family, and his mother in particular, have, through their own extraordinary experience enriched his faith and reminded him not only of his gifts, but of his responsibilities. Archbishop Wilson said he had seen Erick’s giftedness from the time of his arrival in the diocese, and it was for that reason that he was so delighted to be present, so that he could share in the response Erick is making to God’s call.

As we know, the journey Erick has taken up, calls for dedication and commitment. His profession is an important moment in our Province so we rejoice with him and his family that he is a Passionist.

Fr Willy and Fr Tomy have been selfless in their ministry which requires a great deal of attention to a small group of people for a significant amount of time. In the late 1890’s until the 1820’s, Australian Passionists received their formation in Ireland.

This is the first time since then that our Province has entrusted novitiate formation to Passionists outside of our Province, and we congratulate and thank them profoundly for their effort.

May we continue to inspired in our own Christian vocation by the response that a young man like Erick has made, and support each other in the way we know he needs.

Fraternally, Brian Traynor CP