My Vocation Story
My attraction to the priesthood started when I was in primary school and joined the altar boys. As I served during Mass, I witnessed the Eucharist at such a short distance.
I had an uncle, my father’s brother, and I was very close to him. I had a glimpse of what a priest does through my personal encounters with my uncle. I found priesthood exciting and useful to people and there’s a joy in doing this. Being close to God and doing God’s work attracted me. I felt it was something that I could seriously think of doing for the rest of my life, but still just one of many options. The other option was working as a teacher. I was then in Primary 4 or 5.
When when I was in late primary, my brother joined St Francis Xavier Minor Seminary in Punggol. We would visit him and it was nice seeing the life of the seminarians. When we were there, they told stories about what they did: they were having fun, playing games, generally so happy being in the seminary.
That made me even more attracted, that besides liking the life of a priest, the formation seemed to be quite fun. At that time my impression of formation was having fun, being with friends, bonding with one another… It seemed to be more attractive now… I suppose God works in mysterious ways.
So after Secondary 4, I decided to join the Minor Seminary with two friends. With their company, I became more confident to join and with them took the A levels. I can honestly say that as I progressed in the seminary, the call became clearer, It was not only about football, it was about dedicating your life to God. This is what I feel I’m called to.
That’s where the seriousness about being in the seminary took place. Fr Barthoulot was then the rector, and he would say, “God wants good priests, not just priests. Being a priest is easy but being a good priest is difficult. If you want to be a priest, make sure you’re a good one.” That challenged me to see what I was really there for. After the Minor Seminary, I studied in College General in Penang, Malaysia.
After two years there, I enlisted in the National Service. That was a serious test. Because now you’re thrown back into the world. You were told to think on your feet.
National service for me was a very good time; it gave me a chance to be just like any other guy, have girlfriends, which would be a good test to see if you are inclined that way. But at the end of it, I still chose to be a priest.It was quite obvious there were shortcomings in the other way of life, something that was unfulfilled. I could not find the level of joy and fulfulment if I did not pursue the priesthood. So I went back to the seminary.
We were the first group of seminarians to ask to enlist in National Service (NS), because in those days if you joined the seminary you would be exempted. Initially the late Archbishop Olcomendy was unrelenting. He said, “You would lose your vocation.” But we said we wanted to do it.
It was very funny, even the Ministry of Defence was suspicious as people were coming up with different excuses to get out of NS but we were insisting to join.
But after NS, we gave our feedback and opinions and the Church found that it really helped. After that NS became compulsory for seminarians.
NS gives you a sense of what your priesthood would be like. It is not sanitised, unlike in the seminary. The people have totally different values. In fact, it strengthened my vocation.
In October 1973, I came out of NS after two-and-a half years. We could not get a visa to go to Penang so I spent nine months working in a parish in Singapore.
In January 1977, I joined the College General in Penang to do the last four years of Theology.
In March 1981, I was ordained to the diaconate and in June of that year, I was ordained to the priesthood.
Ask Msgr Ambrose
How did you know you were being called to the priesthood?
It started with signs that were not really priestly, as such, but a desire to be of service to others and conditioned by the fact that I was an altar boy in Our Lady of Perpetual Succour Church.
Seeing the life of priests and spending our holidays in the parish – hanging around playing football – I liked what I saw and it attracted me. It was something that I felt would not only make me happy but would make me happy doing for others.
I tied in the priest who said Mass and the priest who helped people. That whole identity was what I liked.
I saw the parish priest, Fr Louis Amiotte, the way he would be bringing in people into his room fighting and quarelling, and then coming out holding hands and smiling. So there was a change in people’s life.
I tied in the priest who said Mass and the priest who helped people. That whole identity was what I liked.
It also helped that my brother had already joined the Minor Seminary. On Sundays my family would go to the seminary to visit him and I saw the joy of the seminarians as they played football and did things together. These added to the possibility that I was being called.
What was your discernment process like?
The excitement about joining the priesthood came in primary school, when I was around Primary 2 or Primary 3. It became more serious when I was in secondary school. So I spoke to my parish priest, Fr Amiotte, a Paris Foreign Missionary.
Fr Amiotte would ask me whether I was available to do God’s will. Key in the priesthood is availability.
Fr Amiotte helped me to see that I was available in the Church by joining the altar boys and helping him. So he encouraged me to join the seminary.
“Pray!” This is the other thing that he would tell me to do. “You must like to pray,” he said, and he was a model of prayer.
Was there ever a time when you doubted your vocation, when you thought you should never have joined the priesthood?
I feel kind of weird because many speak of how they have thought about leaving: packing their bags or walking out the door, but I have never doubted.
Frankly, there have been times when I felt tired or pressured but I never felt that this is not where I should be. I often hear the very dramatic stories but I can’t identify with them yet. I don’t know whether I’ll have severe doubts like that.
Was there ever a time when you felt that God was far away and indifferent to your needs?
No, perhaps partly due to my family environment, where we had daily prayer and rosary as part and parcel of life. So I grew up always with the confidence that God was my best friend.
Even today, whenever I have a problem with friends or I’m angry about something or with what’s happening, I would talk to Him. I never blamed Him for anything. That’s why I find it hard to identify with those who think that the first culprit is God. He has been my best friend since young, more than even my parents, the one I would complain to about anyone. Even when I was scolded or angry with someone for telling me off, I would talk to Him and tell Him how I felt.
What are you most passionate about as a man of God?
As a man of God, I would say introducing people into a relationship with Him. I would want everyone to know that God is not only loving but available to be our best friend, to be our lover. So introducing God to people, not just telling them about Him, but inviting them to taste and see how good the Lord is, that’s my passion.
I’m not always successful at this, I guess, because sometimes I’m a poor reflection of how wonderful He is. In that sense, the words and the actions may not always correspond.
When I was in National Service, I wasn’t always the best to talk explicitly about God or Jesus, as such. But from the values I demonstrated, I finally got them to understand why I was this kind of person. Why I was fair, why I did not do something that the others were doing… then I would bring in God eventually.
Through the good things that people saw in me I could introduce what God was about and say, “You can be just as good if you are in a relationship with Him.”
Under this, there are different ways of introducing God; trying to see and help people recognise that God is within them, in that sense. That His goodness is already in them and it’s a waste if it doesn’t come out, if they don’t unwrap the gift that is within them.
To help people discover how wonderful life is if only they let the reflection of God emerge from within themselves. We have within us the key to happiness but it has to be unlocked by our openness to God.
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a priest? How do you manage your weaknesses?
I think my strength is I like to listen to people, to help them overcome their difficulties. In that sense I’m very available.
Sometimes it becomes a weakness as I do not know how to say no. In trying to help too many, I do not help any. That, I think, is my chief weakness, not being able to say no. I’m finding it difficult to hurt someone in need by not saying no, but as a result I hurt another one even more.
To manage my weakness, I try to focus more. I have to recognise that I can only do that much. Of course prayer makes it easier. God does not look at quantity, at what you have done, but that you have done your best.
In addition to my role in the seminary, I am an Engaged Encounter presentor. There is also the Chaplaincy in the Confraternity of the Seven Sorrows that was promoted by the Canossian Sisters and they meet at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour.
Which words of Jesus sustain you?
Usually it is, “I am with you always,” from Matthew 28. Like I said, because He is my friend, I know He is there. I just need to remind myself that He is with me.
Also, “Do not be afraid”, “I have not left you”, and “Take courage”.
When I was studying and I was far from home, friends and community here, I felt a kind of loneliness but at the same time I grew even closer to Him.
It was a wonderful experience of knowing that, while I didn’t have the comforts I was accustomed to – in those days there were no emails, no Whatsapp, no Skype – having Him there as my best friends made me even stronger. I experienced Him profoundly.
Since I was studying and I didn’t do any parish work, I did not have that joy of being in touch with people and being available to serve them. But He kept me going.
What do you think is your biggest contribution to the Church in Singapore?
I find it very difficult to talk about what I have contributed. For me, as the Eucharistic Prayer II says, just to be given a chance to serve is already a privilege. So I don’t look at it as something I should be noted for.
If at all, I could speak of what I have enjoyed doing. That would be giving Bible classes, being part of marriage preparation courses, being available for people to see me for relationship problems. Not only marriage preparation but also marriage healing because I do Retrovaille also. These are my biggest joys. So my greatest joy is pastoring. Whether I’ve contributed, is up to the people to decide.
Which of the sacraments that you administer give you the greatest satisfaction? Why?
Although I’m fully alive to the Eucharist, it has got to be the Sacrament of Reconciliation. The joy I see, the change in the lives of people around me, from fear and anxiety to freedom through Reconciliation, gives me great satisfaction.
If a seminarian or a young priest came to you with doubts about his vocation, what would be your advise?
For a seminarian, if he has doubts about his vocation, his Spiritual Director (SD) will be the most appropriate person to approach.
For a young priest, I would ask him to understand what he is called to be, to go back to his understanding of the priesthood and what are the reasons.
Off hand, it would be to call him to pray and remember the call he answered. I would advise him also to situate the cause of the doubts. To what extent is it really insurmountable? Usually the doubts would be the Evil One’s way of making us forget our dignity, our calling and the empowerment God gave us when He called us to be priests. The Evil One can make us forget that we have what it takes and then we stop believing that we have it.
Often we need to realise that we have the call within us. Ultimately it helps us to overcome the doubts.
Doubts are disguises of the Evil One to make us forget what we have already received and we have the assurance that God is with us.
We need for pray for confidence that He who called us will help us to overcome the doubt. This applies to anyone doing the right thing. He will be distracted into thinking that it is not within our means, that we are not capable.
There is a need to remind ourselves that when we said yes, it was in response to a genuine power that God gave us. It is just that we are lacking in confidence in God’s presence in our lives.
Why did you choose to be a diocesan priest? What about it that attracted you?
I just saw that as the best way I could serve God’s plan for me. I saw the way of life of a diocesan priest, the independence he has as well as the trust that the bishop has in him.
That independence comes with a lot of trust and responsibility. That gives him the avenue to express his individuality as well as work within the context of the Church and the community.
What would you say to someone who is interested in becoming a priest today?
Be excited and consider yourself very blessed. But always remember that a priest is called by God. You will not know whether it’s God or someone else who made the call if you are not close to Him, so pray.
Find out more about the life of the priests, talk to a priest and get information on the diocesan or Religious priests. So that if you are called to be a priest, you will learn which charisms you have.
Learn more about yourself, be more in touch with yourself, who you are and what you are capable of giving. God will connect to who we are but if I I don’t know who I am I can’t give what I don’t have. So get to know yourself so your response will be a genuine one and you will not be talking on behalf of someone.
What is the current system of discerning a vocation to the diocesan priesthood?
First, Fr Alex Chua, who is the Archdiocesan Vocations Director, journeys with them and speaks with them. When he sees that they are ready to go a bit further, he recommends them to see us at the seminary.
Normally the rector will interview them. Then we we begin a journey of 18 months minimum, in which they see one of the formators every month.
During this period, we will invite them to understand more what seminary life is about. They will have a chance upfront to ask questions and to spend a bit of time, maybe a week a year, to stay with the community and experience the actual programmes in the seminary. That is besides the quarterly recollection and three-day retreat for aspirants.
During the 18 months, the aspirants will also go for a full psychological vocation screening, the assessments of which are sent to the Philippines. The psychological profile that we get is not the full determining factor but it assists us in becoming aware of the personality of the aspirants.
At the end 18 months, if the Seminary Fathers feel that these persons have the basic aptitude at least, then we invite them to apply to join the seminary. They will need a recommendation from their parish priest and two other referees, priest or Religious, plus all the medical tests and academic results.
Then they will do an eight-day retreat with their own spiritual directors/retreat masters. These are usually recommended by the seminary. Then they send in their resignations from their job. The minimum academic qualification is A levels or its equivalent.
The aspirants are encouraged to have work experience before joining the seminary. By then they would have matured and become aware of social situations, work environment and what life is like in the world.
What do you like to do as a form of recreation or relaxation?
Gardening, reading and meeting up with friends. After my heart attack, I had to cut down on playing squash. I used to play squash a lot. When I played squash, I had to be careful because sometimes I tended to get carried away and my heart rate would shoot up.
Gardening is the one exercise that raises my heartbeat and at the same time I get a good workout. I can monitor and control my pace.
It’s as good as playing squash in raising my heart rate. I’ve always liked gardening, going around and raking leaves, maintaining the lawn in the seminary grounds.
I like reading the Bible mainly and Bible-related works and reflections. I read a variety of biblical commentaries for academic purposes, such as when studying and teaching.
What is the biggest challenge to remaining faithful to your vocation?
The temptation to be prideful and self-centered rather than seeing to the needs of others.
This means that I can get carried away in thinking that I’m always right or my ways are the best, especially now that I’m a rector. There is a danger that I can impose my way, but I work with a team of formators and the students themselves sometimes teach us.
Seminarians have a way of looking at things that works better than my way. That is a constant challenge, not to insist that I know best. God speaks through the people you are also forming.
What does the vow of celibacy mean for you?
Being available for others more than for my own interests. There are times, for example, even though I would like to have some personal time to relax, but if there is a greater need somewhere I believe that is what makes me responsible to respond. If I had a family and so on I will not be able to, but being celibate, they are my first love, anyone with problems or in trouble.
To that extent, it is much more than just not having a wife or not having sex, it is being available. So I really look at celibacy as my availability to minister to others in need.
What have you learnt about yourself after 33 years of priesthood?
That I am but an instrument of God, to whom belongs the glory. I realise how blessed I am to be and have what I am and have, especially the many wonderful people who help me through prayer and in so many other ways.
Consistent with what I’ve said earlier, I realise that I’m just a donkey and Jesus is the one sitting on me. I picture this of myself sometimes. The joy of being able to minister without feeling the need to be appreciated or recognised. I realise more and more that I am His instrument, not the one to be praised. So that there is joy even when I’m not well-received.
So when I’m not praised, the only sad part is that He is denied some glory. I should have done a better job to give Him that glory but it’s not personal, I don’t feel it for myself. My sadness comes from the fact that most likely it’s because of this, that I did not do a good job, that the glory due to God was not given.
When I’m praised it’s because of Him. If I was not given a chance to reflect Him, the glory would not reflect Him.
I did not do my best so I could not reflect Him. I’m more and more convinced that I’m just His instrument. Like John the Baptist says, he is not the light, he is only the lamp. So you don’t give praise to the lamp but to the source of light.
Teaching scripture, I’m very fortunate that these are verses that are repeated so often and if I cannot understand and apply them in my life, then I’ve got no excuse because these are all staring at me.
So it makes sense, when I’m the lamp I’m very happy. When I try to be the light and I get criticised, I get disappointed. When I’m not praised, I cannot take it. When people don’t say I’m bright I get hurt. So when it’s dark it’s because I did not reflect Christ’s light and when it’s bright it is because of Him.
I find that this philosophy is very good in avoiding extremes: either that of great disappointment or great expectation or arrogance. So to Him belongs the glory.
What role did your family play in your vocation?
A very significant one. The environment of love and concern for each other, grounded in prayer life – including the daily family rosary.
Love and concern was demonstrated through family time, meal times we talked and shared with each other, we never ate alone. We would wait for each other when one was going to be late. There was parental encouragement to be involved in church; both my parents and my sister were also serving in church. Being part of that service ministry was ingrained from childhood.
Family life was not just for ourselves but also, in terms of relating, how we were with others. My parents always made it clear that whatever happens we were reflecting Christ. And so even in our relationships with other families, if they did something wrong that’s their problem but we were not going to do the same.
I could see sometimes when my parents were hurt by some others, they would not take revenge. Although we as kids would be wanting sometimes to boycott that uncle, that auntie. That is a very strong impression that I got from my parents. You can have feelings of anger, you may have been genuinely hurt, but ultimately you have to forgive.
My parents would demonstrate their forgiveness by praying for those who offended them, making excuses, such as, “Most likely they have problems”, but not retaliating.
What is your vision or hope for the seminarians under your care?
That they will be “cheerful givers” in responding to God’s call to be shepherds after the heart of His Son, Jesus. By this I mean that they will serve with joy and not to be calculative, not to be measuring services received in proportion to service given. To be givers like Jesus, who did not calculate what others needed to repay Him. In other words, that they will be unconditional givers.
What would you tell parents whose children are discerning a call to the priesthood?
To encourage them to be open to God’s will and to see their children’s vocation as a gift and not a right. The reason for that is that sometimes parents can instil in a child that grandeur of being a priest or clergy and so when that is fixed in the child’s mind, just like any secular vocation, such as being a doctor or a lawyer, it becomes almost like an entitlement.
But a vocation is very different, it is a call from God. No one has the right to be a priest.
Many parents call their children rather than letting them find out if God is calling them, or rather God calling and parents cooperating. With the human calling, there is a high risk that it will be wrong.
So we get extremes, some parents telling their child, “you are called” and some parents telling them, “you are not called”.
Parents can support the discernment of the child, even though what the latter discovers may not be what the parents wanted. That’s the gift of a parent, to be able to say, “I want you to be a doctor but God calls you to be a priest.”
If God is the source of happiness, your happiness will be full if you listen to Him. You can choose to find happiness outside of Him, but logic says God is the source of happiness so your happiness lies in Him.
So the child can say, “My reason for saying ‘yes’ to my vocation is because it is coming from the Lord, not because it makes sense to the whole world.”