Seminary Had to Wait
“H ow did I become a priest? Well, I started my life first of all as a teacher. I was a teacher for four years before I decided to join the seminary. My four years of teaching were very enlightening but I was also involved with activities at the Church of St. Bernadette at the same time. At that time, my life was centered on college and home, home and church, church to school, school to home again.
In 1963 when I visited the Bishop at the Cathedral about my entry into the seminary, I was still supporting my family because I had five brothers and sisters in school plus my parents, so, there were seven mouths to feed. As such, it was very difficult for me to join the seminary. I actually had the intention to join the seminary as early as 1960 but the Bishop told me to make full use of my training as it will be useful for me. So, three years passed and all the while, I supported my parents.
I remember I attended four vocation camps, not because I was unsure of my vocation Calling but it was to keep me in touch with the seminary. If you are wondering whether you have a priestly calling, I would advise you to also get in touch with the priests of the seminary as you will never know till you have tried it. This is because, if the Angel of the Lord knocks at your gate and guides you, you will get it right… After my fourth year of teaching, my younger brother, David, also started teaching. He then told me that I could enter the seminary and he would take over the responsibility of supporting the family. It was quite difficult for him too because he also wanted to go for higher studies but he made personal sacrifices in order to support the family so that I could join the seminary.
Seminary Days Were Difficult but I Pressed On
During my seminary days from 1964 – 1971, I spent two years in Singapore and six years in Penang. Of course like what any seminarian would tell you, life was not full of roses because in the seminary, we had our studies and our work but who was going to support us? All the worldly things came to mind but I still pressed on. In fact, I was the first seminarian in the history of the seminary to ask the Archbishop for pocket money because we needed an allowance for our personal expenses. Guess how much we got – $10 a month. This was used to pay for our fares for our bus rides home, or to buy soap etc. I was the first one to ask this for everybody so I hope they can remember me for this!
Seven years in the seminary may seem a long time but you know, Jesus took a longer time. He spent 30 years in the seminary of Nazareth, in His home. He prepared Himself for the world as a Saviour, spent three years in public life and then He died. What kept me going was my family’s prayers. When I was young, every night, before dinner, our family would kneel down to pray together. Sacrifice has to be made, so in the evening, I read up profusely on spiritual books, books on the lives of saints. I read everything relating to the Catholic Church. You should take a look at the booklet where I copied down all the titles of the books I have read before I joined the seminary!
Daily Holy Communion was What Sustained Me
The one thing that helped me persevered through my seminary days was daily Holy Communion. Since I was baptised, I never missed a single Mass. I was in the choir and I was singing every day. When I got back in the afternoon or when on holidays, I would serve at Mass. In fact, since I was at the Teacher’s College, I have always wanted to be a Redemptorist priest because of Father O’Malley Jones. He showed me some books on the priesthood. I was interested but he had no time to journey with me so I missed the chance of being a Redemptorist.
I mentioned earlier about going for daily Mass and I was receiving Holy Communion every day. This was very important for me and I never missed a single Mass except once when I was in the Major Seminary and I had to go to Cameron Highlands for 10 days. It was very hard to go to Mass there so we missed Mass. For me, I believe that everything depends on a good prayer life. The Lord said “Without Me, you can do nothing”, so I depended on Him and on Divine Providence.
Four Obstacles in the Way of Being a True Follower of Jesus
There are four things, I feel, that one must get rid of if anyone wants to follow Jesus. One can follow Jesus, not only as a priest, but as a married person, as a single person or as a religious. There is a passage in the Bible, which says “Master, I want to follow You.” and Jesus said “Foxes have holes and birds have nests but the Son of man has no place to rest His Head. Come follow Me.” What does it mean that foxes have holes? There is security when you are hiding in the hole, you feel safe. So the things you must get rid of when you want to follow Jesus is firstly, to get rid of all fears. For example, fear that we cannot pull through, that we do not have enough money, or that we do not know what will happen to a member of our family if we were not there to take care of them.
The second thing we must get rid of is self-interest. You have to give up what you are interested in doing. It is very hard to give up what you are interested in doing, yet to follow Christ, you must give that up.
Thirdly, you must get rid of all preoccupations, for example, your hobbies, all the things you like to do. To give all these up is not an easy task, it is very difficult.
Fourthly, give up all attachments. You are attached to people, things that draw you or show interest in you, you must give them all up. If you do not do this, there is no way you can follow Jesus. These are the four things to be rid of – fear, self-interest, preoccupation and attachments.
My Priesthood Begins
After I finished my eight years of formation in the seminary, I was sent to the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (‘Nativity Church” for short). “Nativity Church” is a Teochew speaking parish and I was told that in this parish, if you do not know Teochew, you would not get anything done. So I took Teochew lessons in order to preach in Teochew. I had to preach in Mandarin, Teochew and English. To achieve this I had to make a little sacrifice. In my last year during the last term of my seminary formation, I had to forego my Christmas and Chinese New Year holidays because I had to stay back in Penang to study Mandarin for five weeks – five hours a day. After that I was ordained and one week later I could celebrate Mass in Mandarin. Before I was ordained, because of my knowledge of Mandarin, 10 parishes asked for me!
I spent four years in Nativity Church and 19 years in Church of the Holy Family and on top of that, I was asked to go to Rome to study philosophy. I did not want to go to Rome, so I continued to stay at Holy Family. After Holy Family, I was sent to the Major Seminary for seven years and four months. All these were possible because of the grace of God.
Felled by a Stroke but God Saved Me
Unfortunately In November 2001 , I had a stroke. I do not understand why I did not die because it has been said that if you get a stroke that lasted more than five hours, you better say your last prayers and pack your bags. But I had a stroke that lasted for 30 hours, I was sleeping and I could not get up. It happened on a Saturday – I went to sleep without taking my lunch and at night I did not take dinner. On Sunday morning, I did not take breakfast, and in the afternoon, I still could not get up to take lunch. Somehow, subsequently, I managed to open my room door with much difficulty and fell to the floor lying there in a semi-conscious state. It was Valerian (who was then a seminarian) who found me and got a priest to send me to Mount Alvernia Hospital.
Survived and Left Little Sisters of the Poor Alive
At Mount Alvernia Hospital, I was hospitalised for about three months, then I was sent to the Home of the Little Sisters of the Poor. It is common knowledge that those sent there would normally die there. But I was there and thanks to the grace of God, I came out alive, the first in its history! Then one day, Archbishop Chia told me that he thought it was best for me to go to the Church of St. Bernadette. There, the ground is level and will not pose much of a problem for me to get around as I have difficulty walking after the stroke and I will be able to celebrate Mass. So out of obedience I went to the Church of St. Bernadette. I also served as a priest for all the residents at the Little Sisters of the Poor for one year when I got better.
Still Serving My Lord
There are many ups and downs in the priesthood. But it is a life of joy and thanksgiving because without Him, we can do nothing. Throughout my life thus far, the Lord’s promise that “My grace is sufficient for you” continues to ring true. I know that everything I am able to achieve as a priest solely depends on God’s grace. I am still at the Church of St. Bernadette, hoping to serve as much as I can. I run a class every Monday and Tuesday and I am in charge of the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Every Thursday, I have my adult RCIA and once a month I go to Chinatown to say Mass for Catholics around the area. This is all done through the grace of God.
This post was done in memoriam of Father Alfred who passed away on 1st June 2013. Eternal rest, grant unto him O Lord: and let perpetual light shine upon him. May he rest in peace.
First published by © The Serra Club of Singapore in 2006.