Soft-spoken Christopher is proud of his Catholic education, at St. Michael’s School, St Joseph’s Institution and Catholic Junior College. “I would probably have gone to a Catholic university if there had been one here,” Christopher smiled. But fortuitously it was at the National University of Singapore, where he studied, that Christopher first heard the call to the priestly life.

“I only started seriously considering the priesthood in the university. In NUS I was actively involved in the Legion of Mary, the Charismatic Prayer Group, and the Catholic Students Society.”

“As the suspicion grew that I may be called, I pursued it and attended various vocation promotion events.”

He was initially attracted to the Redemptorists. “I used to go regularly to the Novena, and was inspired by the Redemptorists’ ministry of preaching and hearing confessions,” he explained. “I liked the work they were doing and could see myself doing it.”

However a vocation exhibition at St. Ignatius Church led him to consider joining the Jesuits. He recalled, “That year the Jesuit novitiate moved to Singapore (from Malaysia), so the Jesuit booth was well-manned by quite a number of novices.”

Christopher signed up at the booth and started attending regular meetings for those interested. Prior to that he didn’t know much about the Jesuits, but found that he “felt very comfortable,” as he continued to meet with them. He began spiritual direction and the spirituality of the Jesuits eventually won him over. He realised that several of the books on prayer that he had read, were written by Jesuits, Thomas Green, SJ, for one.

“I discovered that several of the priests that had been ministering to the Catholic community in NUS, were also Jesuits – such as Father Gerry Keane and the late Father Liam Egan and Father John Wood” he added.

By the time he joined the Jesuits in 1994 he had been undergoing spiritual direction for four to five years.

John Christian Fjellestad
Street Kids in Philippines. Photo by John Christian Fjellestad. © Some rights reserved. 

After his novitiate in Singapore, Christopher studied Philosophy in the Philippines. He enjoyed his studies, and being in the Philippines – a Catholic and democratic country – broadened his horizons while raising challenges and questions.

“The poverty that I saw…,” he said, shaking his head. “There was such a drastic contrast – the rich living in private housing estates protected by high walls and security guards and the poor living in slums, in horrendous conditions. Yet when I went to assist at week-end Masses at the squatter colony, the people were filled with joy, and offered such warm hospitality.”

Christopher returned to Singapore in 1999 for his regency (a stage in Jesuit formation). He taught Philosophy at the major seminary while Father Henry Siew was away studying for his doctorate.

frchris_stiggy Comms

Following that teaching period, Christopher went to Cambridge, Massachusetts where he pursued his licentiate degree in Theology at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology. “I really liked studying theology and being in Cambridge,” Christopher said. “You get access to the Harvard library and a world renowned faculty.”

However, as in the Philippines, Christopher has mixed feelings about his experience in the U.S.

“The day we registered for classes was Sept 11, 2001! It was quite an experience (New York is only a few hours drive from Cambridge). Then there was the paedophilia scandal that rocked the Catholic Church. Daily you could read in the Boston Globe various sordid details involving the church. There was also the controversy surrounding the Iraq War.”

He continued, “It was a society that was polarised. I felt the tension. It was tough being in a place where the church was in so much pain, and still is.”

Christopher spent his summer vacations constructively.

One summer was spent as an intern at the Loyola House Retreat and Spirituality Centre, in Guelph, Ontario, on a 10-week training programme for retreat directors. “I found that a very helpful, formative experience, especially the hands-on experience of directing retreats under supervision,” Christopher remembered.

Last summer Christopher had another enriching internship experience, this time with Inter-Faith Worker Justice, an organisation that tries to work with the different religions and to coordinate their efforts on behalf of workers’ rights in the U.S. His fellow interns included people studying to be Jewish Rabbis, as well as Muslims. The experience helped to raise his awareness of worker justice issues.

His main challenge, Christopher shared, was “finding my own identity as a Jesuit and soon-to-be Jesuit priest – struggling to learn how to keep growing, adapting and being open to new possibilities and cultures,” he added.

But it’s not all prayer and ministry. Christopher likes going to the gym, relaxing at the beach and practising tai chi, which he said with a grin, “I went all the way to the States to learn.” He also likes to read short stories and novels and going to the movies.

— Source: Interview by Sister Wendy Ooi, Fsp for Catholic News

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