When Death is not a stranger
The last time I saw him, a couple of weeks ago, he was making his way on foot from Qormi to Birkirkara, in connection with his pastoral work.
With his usual charismatic smile and infectious good humour, he pointed out that “as the crow flies” was faster than Arriva, and it did not involve the hassle of finding a parking space, as it would have had he driven his own car.
We chatted about this and that – his plans to go to Ethiopia again, his plans for the Plus You group, and other things, then went our opposite ways.
Berikni Zi¸ he said, as he usually did (we were not related). Berikni Dun, I replied, as I usually did.
And then his morning, just before Mass at a conference we were attending, the priest asked us to pray for “René Cilia, Viċi of Żebbuġ, the young priest who died in a traffic accident this morning.”
For a split second, you could have heard a pin drop; and then we realised that this precious person – our Żaren, whom most of us knew him through different networks – was no more.
I have long ceased asking about the whys and wherefores of death. I have long stopped being maudlin about choices of music and readings for funeral services – in fact I have chosen mine ages ago. I no longer wear black to funerals; and I have already specified that I want mine to look like a garden with butterflies.
Death is no longer a stranger to me – I have encountered its scent in our house, in hospital corridors, in the street… and I do not fear it. But still, whenever it strikes so peremptorily, I am taken aback. I treasure the memories of the persons I have known, and loved, who have died – because that is the way they would want it.
I know that like all righteous people, René was ready for death – although he had “lots of things to do” before it mowed him down so dispassionately.
I remember how happy René was when his book Is-Saltna tal-Ħamisn was launched. The event was held on Saturday, December 11, 2010, in the Ospizio (Lorenzo Manché Boys’ Secondary School) in Floriana. I had the honour of having been one of the two guests René asked to talk about it, the other being Charles Casha. Sara-Lee Zammit had read excerpts from the book, which, ironically, tells of how the lives of Julian and Ivan had been turned topsy-turvy after a traffic accident.
It is worth mentioning here that in his car, René always kept Anointing Oil to use as unction, and other items necessary, should he chance upon a traffic accident and be able to conduct the Last Rites.
The book had won him the special prize for the most promising youth in the National Competition of Literature for Young Adults, organised by the National Book Council and Agenzija Żgħażagħ.
Yes, René did have plans for a sequel, parts of which he had already written; but he was way too busy to just sit down and finish it. Maybe I’ll find time to finish it when I’m back from Ethiopia.
As his friend Clive Piscopo said – “so many stories, and so little time in which to write them…” These two wonderful people had met during the former’s production Il-Bambin tal-Isptar. Ever the unselfish friend, René had posted the clip on You Tube with the words; words: All rights reserved to their respective owners; I have no professional connection with the parties concerned, just a deep friendship and admiration for everything this production represents…God Bless You Guys.
That was Żaren, through and through… always rooting for others. He was ordained priest in 2011, and was one of the most devout men of the cloth I have ever known. He preached – and led – by example, as all those whom he guided and counselled, indeed all his friends and parishioners, will readily confirm.
In his short life, he crammed in more than half a dozen of us do in a much longer period. He successfully juggled his family and pastoral duties with his studies for his post-graduate licentiate in Pastoral Theology (focusing particularly on the Deaf Community and the Church), made sure the altar boys got their fair share of outings as well as lessons about service during rites and ceremonies, painted, wrote poetry and prose, sent personal notes of encouragement to friends near and far, and also joined in social events… some of which he organised himself.
René was a priest, a writer, a mentor, an artiste… but best of all, he was a friend.