Vocation Nurtured with Catholic Upbringing
I did not hear God’s call like Peter, Andrew, James and John or Matthew. I came from a Catholic family. My father taught in St. Joseph’s Institution and later worked in a construction firm while my mother was a housewife. We lived in an attap house in the “kampong”. Life was simple but we were happy and we were one of the few Catholic families in that “kampong”. I attended a Catholic school – Holy Innocents’ English School where I had my Catechism classes. I was a Crusader and was also in the choir but was never an altar boy.
When I was in Upper Secondary school, I felt drawn to the priesthood, probably through the influence of two religious men. One was the late Father Francis Chan and the other was Brother Noel. Something made me want to find out more about vocations, so, I started to ask the religious brothers in my school. They were very friendly, especially Brother Noel. Upon the Brothers’ request in class, I used to write down questions related to religious life for them to answer. Eventually, when I told Brother Noel that I was entering the seminary, he was not surprised, as he had recognised my handwriting in those notes. That was a confirmation for me.
So, I tried to learn more about the priesthood. At the same time, I was impressed by the caring ways of my Parish Priest who was the late Father Francis Chan. He was a family friend and a regular visitor to our house. The same year that I entered the seminary, he was elected as the first Bishop of Penang.
I spent three years in the Minor Seminary in Ponggol. We led a simple life and had to learn Latin, which I had no inkling of before. We were given four hours of Latin lessons every day. It was useful because later on in the Major Seminary, everything was taught in Latin.
Learning to let God be in Control
I believe that when we are put in a specific situation where we have to do something, we should just let go and proceed. Hence, in that way, I managed to master Latin. When I was in my third year, we had to take the Principal Level in Latin. The Rector at that time, Father Barthoulot, wanted us to sit for the examinations for the full certificate of the Higher School Level. We were obedient and learnt what we could and six of us managed to get the full certificate. So you see, when there’s a will, there’s a way. That’s also an indication for me with regard to not doing our own will but listening to the superiors – that’s God’s Voice for us.
In the seminary, everything was provided for us but there was no luxury at all. At the very beginning, we were not allowed to have any money with us. Even our own personal money had to be surrendered to the Rector. After some time we were allowed a little money, about $10 for our weekly outings.
Growing Into My Role as a Priest
In 1963, I was ordained a deacon. In January 1964, I was ordained a priest at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. When. I was ordained, I did not have a very clear picture of the priesthood. What I wanted was just to do something to share the faith with other people but that was not the complete picture of what a priest should be. But in the course of time, I learnt more of what it is to be a priest. A priest is not just someone who gives talks, lectures, etc but a priest must be a man totally for others. A priest must be someone who is really in contact with people, and he must be like the Good Shepherd.
My Motto – “Do Well What You Are Doing”
So, these ideas and hard facts of the priesthood slowly developed in me. I remember there were always some captions on the board in the Minor Seminary every week and one of it was “Do well what you are doing”. That was the motto of my school also. That particular phrase is always etched in my mind and is of utmost importance to me. What is expected of us is that we do our best.
After my ordination, I was assigned to the parish of Saints Peter & Paul. At the beginning, it was not easy, as I had to preach not only in English but also in Teochew. To speak in Teochew is one thing but to preach in Teochew is quite a challenge. Fortunately my Parish Priest helped me. At first, even when I preached in English, I had to type out everything and read it out and it wasn’t easy. This went on for quite some time and then one day, I said that I must get rid of the text so that I can speak to people personally. Since then, when I speak now, I don’t use any text.
Obedience is Key Attribute for a Priest
At Saints Peter & Paul, I got to mix with and understand the people in the parish. I was put in charge of the altar boys, the Legion of Mary and the choir. After two years, I was sent to Kuala Lumpur to pick up some Mandarin. It was something that was necessary, so I went. I was supposed to go for one year, but before the year ended, I got a call at 5am from the Archbishop asking me to come back to serve at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (OLPS). I was obedient and came back.
I served in OLPS for two and a half years before I was sent to Rome. 1 was not eager to go for further studies because deep inside me, I just wanted to be a simple parish priest. But since the Bishop asked me, I went. In Rome, it was not easy because the lessons were in Italian and we had only one month to learn the Italian language. We had to listen to the lectures in Italian and we didn’t comprehend very much. But as time went on, it was manageable. Language was one problem and the other problem was food. When I was in Singapore, in Siglap, the cook always scolded me because I ate so little rice but when I was in Rome, I longed for rice and my chilli. It was a difficult time but I survived.
One day, the Holy Father came to the college I was in. I met him and got his blessings and maybe that changed my life also. I spent two years in Rome doing my studies. I did Moral Theology because I wanted to do something practical to guide people in their lives. In my first year, I was actually offered a post in Rome. However, I was not keen because my heart was for my people here in Singapore. I managed to speak to the Bishop and told him that if he wanted me to teach in Penang, then he had to see that I did not get posted to Rome. Somehow he got his way and I was spared from the post in Rome.
After two years, I finished my Masters in Theology and I took an extra year to learn Comparative Religions because I had to teach Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism So, I went round to different universities to learn. After I came back, I was posted to Penang, where I spent five years. Personally I did not want to teach in Penang because my heart was more for the parish as a pastor but because the Bishop felt that I was needed there, I went in obedience. And when I went, I gave myself totally to the life in Penang – “Steadfast” was my motto.
I Submitted to the Lord’s Will
The five years proved ultimately to be a wonderful experience for me because if I had not gone, parish life would never have been able to provide me with that kind of experience. So, it was something useful for me. It was not my choice but I submitted, just like Our Lady – “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord. Be it done unto me according to Your Word” – that was my disposition too.
I spent five years in Penang and at the end, I told the Bishop that I would like to come back to the Diocese. Then I applied to do a psychological course in England because it would help me when I do counselling. But the priests and the religious wanted to start a Pastoral Institute in Singapore and they wanted me for the job. So, again, I had to forego what I wanted to do with regard to my studies and I took up the post of Director of the Singapore Pastoral Institute. I started it in 1978. By 1980, I had already settled everything in the Institute and as there wasn’t too much work, I offered myself for more work. At that time, Father Paul Munier had just completed building the Church of the Holy Cross but he did not want to be the Parish Priest so I became Parish Priest. Hence from 1980 to 2001, my life was in Holy Cross.
A Priest is in Fact Another Christ
Those were wonderful years for me and I treasured them very much. In the course of all these years of my priesthood, I can see that what is most important for a priest is that he must always remember that he is another Christ. We act in the Person of Christ and that is why before I celebrate Mass, I always spend a few minutes to say “I am acting in the Person of Christ”. Because it is important to remember that it is in Christ’s Name that I am acting in, it is not myself. I have no power over myself but I am just an instrument of God.
As a priest, I see more and more the importance of realising that we are just instruments of God. We have the voice but the word comes from God. We can say a lot of things but if it is our own it will not touch people’s hearts. But if the words come from God, then those words will touch people’s hearts. So, it is not a question of the way we speak that is of vital importance; the most important thing is that we try to communicate God’s Words. Like Mother Teresa, she was not a great speaker but you can be sure that when she spoke, people’s hearts were touched. So, it is not the quality of the voice or the quality of the language but ultimately, the word must come from God. That’s why we have to be simple and realise that we must not use many difficult words to attract attention but we must focus on the Word of God because it is God’s Words that we are trying to give to the people.
A People’s Priest
As a priest, the people are of vital importance to us. We cannot be a priest without the people. It’s just like the story of a man who was a publisher of newspapers with good circulation. He went round to visit the people and they asked him why he was wasting his time visiting them when he was such a successful man. The man said that without the people, he would not have success, as they are the ones who buy his newspapers. So for us, we too need you just as you need us as priests. There must be this mutual relationship between us as we need one another. For me, one very important effort that I always make is to get to know the people and if possible to get to know them by name, so that there is a rapport. If we are strangers to each other, then that is not being a priest. A priest must be a man for people just like Christ.
The Need for Detachment from the World
Furthermore, I feel that in all these years of priesthood, what is important is for us to be detached. When Jesus called, Peter and Andrew changed their jobs and they had to leave their boats and all behind. The same is true for priests, we have to be detached from all these worldly things. If we are attached to worldly things, then we cannot serve the people of God. Our hearts must be for the people and not for things. In our world, materialism is practised and unfortunately this can be a great temptation even for priests and religious because people tend to go with the drive, they follow the current. But for priests, we have to be detached because there are so many things that we actually do not need.
Socrates, the great philosopher, was known for his detachment. One day, he and his friend went around the market where people were selling lots of things. Socrates was looking intently at all the things. His friend said to him, “I am very surprised. You don’t like all these things but why do you seem to be so attracted to them now?” Socrates answered that he was very happy to see all these things “… because I could see there are so many things that I don’t need, that I don’t require.”
As a priest, and as people of God, we need the spirit of detachment. We must not be attached to worldly things; we must try to live as simply as we can. As Jesus said in the Bible, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His Head.”
When I read the life of Mother Teresa, I was really impressed that she was willing to leave everything and go to the slums, to live with the people and attend to them. This is the attitude that we should have. It is very important to have the spirit of detachment and the spirit of being one with the people.
Unfortunately, sometimes, generous lay people are spoiling the priests and that is bad. My advice is not to give them too many things, which are luxurious and don’t feed them too much. Priests must lead a simple life. There are wonderful lay people, who may unintentionally lead the priests and religious the wrong way by spoiling them with material gifts. What is important is to support them in prayer and have a rapport but not lavish them with material things. That must be avoided.
Do God’s Will and Not Our Own
As a priest, I also learnt that we must always do God’s Will and not our own will. We must learn to obey authority. At the ordination of a priest, the ordinand promises obedience to the Bishop but unfortunately, not all of them are very obedient. So, we have to pray for the priests to be more obedient.
It is of vital importance for a priest to be obedient and not to be attached to anything, even to the parish. Some people may wonder why I was in Holy Cross for 21 years. But I told the Bishop then that I was willing to be transferred anytime. I was willing to listen to the Bishop at all times. I don’t just do things because I want to.
For me, in my vocation, I see that things are not easy. Because in all walks of life, whether married, single, priest or religious, we have crosses to carry. Romans 8:28 always strikes me – “To those who love God, all things would work unto good.” So, no matter what troubles you may face, if you really love God, you will find that things that may be negative would turn out to be positive. In my own life, I can say that the things that I didn’t like, turned out to be very positive experiences for me.
Listening to God’s Will
The other important thing for a priest is listening to God’s Will. I did not seek to be a Bishop. In fact, in 1976, I was told by Archbishop Olcomendy, that I was one of the candidates to succeed him and I told him I was too young, I was inexperienced and I was very afraid because he told me that, “… if Rome calls you, you have to do it.” I was very scared. But God has His Ways and Bishop Yong from Penang who was a Singapore citizen, came back and took over. So, I was spared for 20 over years. Then Bishop Yong retired and I became one of the candidates who was shortlisted and in the end, well you know, the one who is most unworthy was chosen. So, I have been chosen. It was not my choice.
My life in Holy Cross was much more comfortable then. I had a clear focus in life and that is to relate to people. As a Bishop, you are put on a pedestal, there is a lot of glory and honour but all these are not important for me. What is important for me is to do pastoral work and this is what I miss.
Serving as Archbishop
The responsibility of a Bishop is great. In a parish, I had only two priests in my charge. Now, I have over 130 priests. Previously, I had only about 8,000 people to look after but now it is about 200,000 – 300,000 people. I did not have to worry about the finances in the different parishes and congregation, but now I have to see to everything. It is a very heavy responsibility. However, as I have said earlier what is important for me is “Do well what you are doing.” I do my best and there is much comfort in St. Paul’s words “To those who love God, all things will work unto good.” These are the words that I hold on to very closely.
As a Bishop now, I have to see to the progress of the Archdiocese and not just to keep to the status quo. Hence a lot of planning has to be done. Just as a priest in the parish cannot work alone without the people, so I cannot work alone without the priests and without the people in general. We all must work together hand in hand because we all belong to the Body of Christ. Making changes is not easy. People are not used to changes but prefer the status quo. However, if we keep to the status quo, there will be no improvement. There must be changes but done in the proper way and we need to seek what is God’s Way for us.
Why We Need Priests
We all have different vocations. Married life is a beautiful vocation because with no family life, there will be no priests also. Family life is important in the promotion of vocations. Parents must see to it that they bring up their children in the proper way and be attuned to God to deepen their faith and to live lives that are according to God’s Will. We also need priests and religious as we have different functions to perform. Without priests, we will suffer – there will be no Mass and Sacraments. It’s a terrible thing and we need to pray for more vocations, genuine vocations. We do not want to just get as many priests as possible but they must have the vocation – the Call from God. It is better to have fewer priests than to have one or a few priests “singing out of tune”. We need good and holy priests. There are also priests who are getting old and we have to let them retire. So, there is a need for more vocations. We need the support of everyone to pray for this important aspect of our life – for more vocations to the priesthood and religious life.
Be Open to God’s Call
For the young people, if God calls you, don’t worry. You have my example that I did not want to do many things but I was open. When you are open, somehow God will bring fulfilment to your life. We are just the instruments. There will be great fulfilment in your lives, as God cannot be outdone in generosity. Give and gifts will be yours – “Great measure, pressed down and shaken over will be poured on your lap. The measure you give will be the measure you will receive.”
First published by © The Serra Club of Singapore in 2006.