His Gung-Ho Attitude Started It All
Speaking to Father Joachim, it was surprising to hear the way he answered his calling to the priesthood. It was through an indirect manner and it was his “gung-ho” attitude that led him to answer his calling to be a priest. He admits that he is the kind to commit first and then see what follows.
However, he qualified that he was not rash though it may have sounded like it. When he decided to take that step towards the priestly vocation, he already had some knowledge of what it could entail. He was also bolstered by the confidence that God will always be with those who answer His Call. Just like in the story of Moses and St. Paul, when they decided to do God’s Will, God was with them to help them overcome whatever problem that came their way. Therefore, Father Joachim had the confidence that if the priesthood were God’s Will for him, God would see him through the difficulties. Furthermore, he had always operated on the premise that if he were to make a mistake, he would prefer to err on the side of God.
His Home Was His First Seminary
He shared that the first lesson we teach our children is that God loves and He provides because this is what they experience through the love and providence of their parents. Hence Father Joachim believes that the formation process of priests starts from the day their mothers fed them. Looking back, he felt that his mum probably did not realise she was his first rector in the “seminary”, which was his home as she was the one who first formed him although she was not a Catholic. His brothers and sisters were also the first ones who journeyed with him in his first “seminary formation”. So, they could also be considered his first confidants. It was also where he learnt about relationships.
The Love of a Teacher That Changed His Life
Father Joachim’s teacher played a very big part in his life because she was the first person outside his family who loved and cared for him. This teacher left him with such a deep and profound experience of God’s love that, in many ways it shaped the way he relates with the youths and the people around him today. He recalled that on the last day of school (he was not a Catholic then), he told God that he would love the people around him the way his teacher had loved and cared for him. It was her loving guidance that turned him around from his low self-esteem and made him realise how conversion could take place through the influence of someone who cared enough to be a mentor, someone who could make a difference in one’s life.
Hence the first thing he ever told God was that he wanted to make a difference in someone else’s life. He wanted to pass on the love that he had experienced from his teacher to others, particularly children and the youths. Thereafter, he became a catechist and started reaching out to children. He was only about 20 years old then. When he was finishing his stint in the army, he joined La Salle College of Arts, the then St. Patrick’s Arts School. Later on, he worked in a jewellery company and taught for a short period in two primary schools as a relief teacher.
First Thoughts of the Priesthood and Religious Life
During the later part of his teenage life, Father Joachim did think that he might want to be a priest and that was when he realised there were two stages to God’s Calling. When he was in school, he entertained the thought of becoming a Franciscan. This was because a Franciscan Brother by the name of Brother George visited from Australia and it was the first time he saw this chocolate-coloured attire with a cord. Upon looking back, he believes he was more attracted to the cord than the priesthood. He was not even baptised then but in any case, he did enquire about how to go about to be a religious brother. The La Salle Brothers at St. Joseph’s lnstitution also had a deep impact on him
A Double Standard in Our Lives!
Father Joachim shared that he believes the first call is a wake-up call of sorts – to get us to realise that there something called a “vocation” (to the priesthood or religious life). A person may be called and if he feels it, he will entertain the question of a priestly vocation. If a person never felt was called to the priesthood, he will not even consider anything to do with the priestly vocation.
Father Joachim was pondering these questions, “Marriage is also a vocation but how many of us would spend eight days in the retreat centre to discern and ensure that we are called to be married and ensure the person we are planning to marry is the right one, etc? How many people think this way? But when it comes to the priesthood, we must make retreats, check with everyone and must make sure we do make a mistake. Why it is alright for one to make a mistake in one’s marriage but yet one cannot make a mistake when it comes to discerning about joining the priesthood? There is a double standard here.”
He also believes that it is perfectly alright if our young men were to enter the seminary and if after one or two years discerned that the priesthood was not for them and left the seminary. To him, this is far better than not having even ventured to take that courageous step to seriously discern the Calling.
God Will Still Bless You but You Might Not Be As Happy
Father Joachim elaborated on how and why it is important that one considers his vocation very seriously. He suggested that the first step is to consider that maybe we are called and then ask the question – what is this vocation about? As one starts searching, one may realise that the priestly vocation is not for him but marriage is. God wants us first to realise there are vocations from God. That is why many young people think they were called to the priesthood. Many whose marriages do not work out subsequently say that they actually felt called to the priesthood when they were younger. They may referring to the first wave of calling (to the awareness of vocation) but not the second wave (the calling to a specific religious vocation).
However when some marriages go wrong, some tend to use the excuse that they were actually not called to the married life. Father Joachim assures these people that even if God were calling a person to the priesthood and if that person decides to get married instead, God would still bless his marriage. However, he may not be as happy as he would have been if he had accepted the calling to become a priest. He does not believe that God will mess up a person’s marriage just because he did not accept His Call. Rather, when a marriage fails it is because the couple did not learn how to live in a marriage.
“If I Could Not be A Good Husband and Father, I Will Not Make a Good priest”
For Father Joachim, when he decided on the priesthood, one of the most important criteria for making the decision to be a priest was whether he could be a good husband and father. He felt that if he could not be one of the above, he had better not be a priest. It may sound strange but he explained further. The reason is that in order to be a good husband and father, he must be committed and be able to put his family’s interests before his own. If he cannot do that, he feels he is not going to be a good priest because a priest has to be selfless and be able to put the interest of God’s people before his own comforts and be fully committed in his duties as a priest. Therefore, if he were not able to make sacrifices for a small group of loved ones, how would he be able to make sacrifices for a bigger group of people who are not even related to him in the worldly sense?
Weighing the Married Life and Priesthood
As Father Joachim decided between married life and the priesthood, he realised that even if he had a beautiful and loving family, he knew that he would not have been satisfied. He felt in his heart that something was terribly missing in that scenario. He asked himself these questions, “So what if my family were happy, so what if my children were going to be well brought up. So, where do we go from here when there are so many families that are broken and are suffering? How could I ever be happy with that situation?” He pondered upon them and the answers that dawned in his heart left him with a very clear answer – the married life was not for him. For him, the fullness of life lies in the priesthood. He felt drawn to the desire of building up families and he felt he could do this through his priesthood.
A Call Within A Call
After Father Joachim was ordained a priest, he realised this was his calling. His work has centred on families – couples, children and doing a lot of counselling. He makes it a point that every marriage that he celebrates the Mass for, they soar and they fly. He does not believe in couples just surviving a marriage, they must be living in a marriage. Every couple married by him has to undergo special training for five months. It came to a point that even non-Christian couples go to him for marriage preparation. He wants to ensure that every marriage celebrated by him will not end up in divorce. Hence, he would rather spend time preparing the couples for marriage even though it takes a lot of time than to have to counsel them when their marriage ends in divorce. He believes that this preparation works. After six years, he is thankful to God that all the couples that he prepared for marriage are still together.
Put Aside Fear and Impossibilities
Father Joachim has the following advice when it comes to vocations – there are two things we need to put aside – fear and impossibilities. He went on to say that if he were afraid of what his life would become, he would never have answered God’s Call. And God will always respect our free will. If we say no, He will accept it. If we keep thinking everything is impossible, we would not even take the first step to act and would end up neither here nor there. These were the two exact issues Father Joachim faced when he was discerning his vocation but he was also aware that God was always there for him.
Seminary Formation Necessary
When Father Joachim entered the seminary, he realised that the 7 long years of formation was very necessary. It was a time for him to be grounded in Scriptures, theology and in his faith. It also gave him an opportunity to learn to live a disciplined life and helped him further discern if that way of life was what he could live with for the rest of his life if he became a priest.
Personally, for him, he felt that the training he received in the seminary has been good and necessary. He learnt to live in a community and accepted fraternal correction from his fellow seminarians. Furthermore, it was important to be grounded in theology so that he could minister effectively to the people of God.
Happiness is Doing God’s Will
Today on hindsight, he tells us he realised that his family had been instrumental in his becoming a priest. He has this advice for all parents. He feels parents play an important role in nurturing vocations. Right from the beginning, we have to teach our children not to be afraid of God’s Will. God always gives us the best. All the misconceptions about the priesthood are unfounded. If a person is called to the married life, he will be happy as a married person provided he lives out his marriage in the right way; according to God’s Will for him. If a person is called to the priesthood or religious life, he will be happy and God will bless him. Parents also need to assure their children of their blessings should they be called to be priests and encourage them to be courageous in following the Lord’s Will because that is where their happiness will be found – in doing God’s Will.
A Highpoint in His Priesthood
Father Joachim recalled the time when he was into his fifth year as a priest, he attended a retreat in Sabah. It was during this retreat that he experienced the power of the Holy Spirit as in the Acts of the Apostles – it was a powerful “Upper Room” experience. He witnessed how God’s healing came to people who were so broken and how deep conversion could take place when the Holy Spirit could act freely.
Many people feel that during the time of the first Apostles, the Holy Spirit was more “real” than in present times. However, he believes the Holy Spirit is still the same – capable of working profound healings, miracles and conversions as in the days of the first Apostles. The difference is that today – many are numbed to sin. What is sin is now not considered sin and hence people do not have the right disposition to receive the Holy Spirit. However, he observed that where retreats address the subject of sin upfront and squarely, the retreat participants are enlightened on what sin is and given the opportunity to make a good confession at the retreat, they will experience the great healing power of the Holy Spirit.
Prayer is the Foundation of Everything
After his Sabah retreat experience, Father Joachim became more convinced that prayer is the foundation of everything. However, he said, “It is not good enough to pray for oneself. Our prayers must be for others and the community as well – it must be evangelical prayers.”
From then on, before implementing any programme, he would pray at least a week for that intention. When he was starting a faith formation programme at the Church of St. Bernadette, he prayed and fasted for facilitators to come forward to help with the programme. The Lord sent about 40 facilitators to help him. He testified that this in itself is a miracle as the parish community is not big at St. Bernadette’s. Then before embarking on a 9-month intensive faith formation programme for the parish, he got the facilitators to make spiritual preparations for two months before the registration started.
They were to fast once a week and dedicate half hour of prayers daily for the intention. That was the ground rule that he set for the facilitators. On the day of the registration, about 300 people (Catholics and non-Catholics) signed up for the programme! It was certainly an overwhelming response – only made possible with prayers. As they journeyed in the faith formation programme, many grew stronger in their spiritual life and there was a shift in the atmosphere of the community. The people became more prayerful and wanted a prayer room. So they prayed for a prayer room. One day, Father Joachim asked the Parish Priest, Father Eugene Chong if a prayer room could be built and the latter readily agreed and suggested converting one of the rooms into a prayer room for the parishioners.
The group of facilitators developed into a faith community. Subsequently, when they were preparing to organise a retreat for the parishioners, they fasted and prayed for two months prior to the retreat. And 500 people signed up for the retreat! Every event that they planned, even the parish feast day celebrations, were carried out with prayer support.
The whole experience shaped the outlook of his priesthood. Prayer is indeed the foundation of everything! He also realised that if a parish community is not centred on prayer and is only dependent on the skills of a priest, whatever apparent success or progress achieved will quickly collapse when the priest leaves the parish, leaving the parish worse off than before.
The Future Ahead
This year in 2006, Father Joachim celebrates his eighth year as a priest. His greatest joy as a priest is to see conversion in people and to see people happy. With the grace of God, he is now currently pursuing a Masters of Science in Pastoral Counselling in the United States. The first six months have been challenging but he certainly finds it very enriching because he knows that what he is learning will certainly come in very useful in his pastoral work back in Singapore.
It is his hope that we will be able to have a Family Encounter programme for our Catholic community in Singapore just like we have Marriage Encounter. This is in the aim of strengthening our family units – where the first seed of faith and vocation is sown in our children.
In the closing of our interview with him, Father Joachim humbly asked for all our prayers so that he could continue to serve faithfully as our priest.
First published by © The Serra Club of Singapore in 2006.