Why Have You Still Not Thought of Becoming My Priest? – Fr JJ Fenelon

Why Have You Still Not Thought of Becoming My Priest? – Fr JJ Fenelon

Everyone Needs to Discern God’s Vocation for Them

I would like to start off by saying that when we normally talk about one’s vocation story, it is always said in the past tense like it is a one-time incident and that’s it. But I would like to look at my vocation story not in the past tense but as a vocation call to the priesthood which is part of my salvation story because everything in my past helped lead to that point when I finally answered the call to the priesthood.

I would like to share a bit about it as it helps us to reflect and discern what we are doing with our life because very often many people do not truly discern God’s vocation for them in life; whether it is priesthood, single life, married life or even what to do with their career. It is a very automatic progression – from school, then university, and you find a job, get married and you go on in life. There might be some inkling of what we would like to do but at the same time, there isn’t really a serious search to see what God’s Will in our lives are.

…this whole process of being chosen by God began with my mum and dad coming together as husband and wife.

“You Did Not Choose Me, I Chose You”

I would like to use the words from the Gospel passage – “You did not choose Me but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear much fruit, the kind of fruit that endures.” So for me, this whole process of being chosen by God began with my mum and dad coming together as husband and wife. I am the second child in a family of three children – an elder brother and a younger sister. They are now living overseas. My father is up there with the Good Lord now as he died in the first year when I entered the seminary. My mum had always been a housewife and she now lives at Whampoa.

I was born in India and so were my brother and mother. My late Father was born in lpoh, Perak and my sister in Singapore. I came here at the age of four and was educated at St. Gabriel’s from Primary One to Secondary Four. After that, I went on to do some commercial studies and then to National Service. My childhood years as an adolescent, teenager and young adult, were spent in the church. I was an altar boy from the age of 10 and then I went on to become a member of the youth group and finally with the choir where I remained for about 16 years before joining the seminary.

Music Was My Life

At the same time after National Service, I was very involved with music, working as a musician and a DJ. I was part of an entertainment company that provided music and shows for companies’ dinners and dance functions. At the same time, for almost 10 years I was in sales and marketing for life insurance with Great Eastern Life. Music was a big part of my life. I never had priesthood in my mind at all. It was when I gave up my music career and began to focus on my parish choir that I felt I answered everything to the full as far as God was concerned. The very gift He had given me – Music – I was now giving it all back to Him through the music ministry of the church.

I Never Wanted to Become a Priest

I think each one is called in his own way. And for me, I think God had His plans for me. As I said, I never ever wanted to become a priest. Actually when we were young, my brother and I used to play celebrating Mass at home. He would take the blanket and tie it as a chasuble and he would be the priest and I would be the altar server. Then we would buy “kana”, the red, flat, circular ones and round up the kids in the “kampong” and gave them “communion”. He was the one who was supposed to be the priest.

…the Eucharist began to have a special significance that I had not known or experienced before

Attending Daily Mass Was the Turning Point

Now, when did this thing about the priesthood really become strong for me? When I was in my early 20s I bought a book at the Novena (St Alphonsus) Church. I have been going there ever since I was a child. The book was a thin A5 size book titles “should I become a priest?” I probably read it and put it away. In my 30s when I went for daily Mass, the Eucharist began to have a special significance that I had not known or experienced before. There was something there. It was attracting me and I kept going. It was during one lunch-time Mass at the Cathedral, during the Doxology – “Through Him, With Him, In Him”, the question flashed – “Why have you still not thought of becoming My priest?”

My Parents’ Reaction

At that time, my dad was sick and my niece was also in hospital and we had to help take care of her as she had some bone defect problem. It was at the hospital that I first broke the news to my mum and said: “I feel that I am being called to the priesthood”. She is always the first I confide in. My mum’s first expression was “What? At this age?” At that time, I was about 35 years or so. She said, “All your friends are settling down, getting married and having children and you want to become a priest?” I said, “But God seems to be calling me now, I think.” So, I kept talking to her about it and she asked if I had spoken to my dad about it. I said no but I was going to tell him about it. And when I told him, his reaction was different. He said, “OK, if the Lord is really calling you, then go ahead.” I was worried about how they were going to manage as everyone was abroad. I was very apprehensive about leaving home. I was responsible for my parents well being both financially and emotionally.

Things Became Clear During the Discernment Retreat

As I was thinking about it, I also spoke to a few priests about it to make sure it was not my imagination, that it was something real. And they told me that there was something like a late vocation, a late Calling. They assured me and told me to pray and discern about it. They also told me that I needed to do a proper discernment retreat, which I did. That was the first major step.

During the discernment retreat, certain things became very clear. The Calling was not a figment of my imagination, there was something really there for me to look into. Then, I had to decide what I should do. So, eventually I decided to join the seminary because from the outside, I could only do so much. I was working and what little time left was spent with my family. But, with all these distractions, it was quite difficult to check out the Call. So I had to take a very major step in stopping everything, leaving the family and going away to the Major Seminary. It was a leap of faith. I was not in a relationship then, though I have had three previous relationships. Wondered why they never worked out? Now I knew why!

In the first year of the seminary, my dad passed away. I was able to be by his bedside when he died.

God’s Blessing Was an Affirmation of the Calling

In the first year of the seminary, my dad passed away. I was able to be by his bedside when he died. For me, I saw that as a blessing and also as a sign that God was truly calling me and because He made it possible what I thought was impossible – I always thought I would receive a phone call from my mum to inform me that he had passed away.

Going Back to the Seminary Was Like Coming Home

Ever since then, as the weeks went on, my Calling became surer, more definite. I found myself having a lot of peace and I had the sense that I was coming home whenever I went back to the seminary after the weekend. It was not like “Oh my God, I have to go back to the seminary.” I was beginning to enjoy this new life that was coming ahead of me. As I was reflecting I felt that my life had sort of been very nicely laid out for me. My life of music, my career in life insurance, in church – everything had been preparing me for this. As I look back, I find that what has helped greatly all these years was the time I was growing up as a child, as a youth, in my working life especially, the 15 years I spent working after National Service had put me in good stead especially when it comes to dealing with people. The seminary doesn’t teach you these things. You learn through trials and errors. I feel after having been there – In the world and now being on the other side, I can see the difference and how God had prepared me to manage the different situations now in my life.

Every Priest is Called and Prepared by God

Sometimes, I find that when people make certain judgment on priests, like this priest is so talented but what is this other priest saying, etc. It is not fair to make these judgments on the priests because all of us have been called; all of us have been prepared by God in a particular way. Therefore, if whatever I do goes down well with the people, I have nothing to boast about because everything had been prepared for me by God Himself. I am just fulfilling now what He wants me to really do for Him.

…the privilege of responding to the call to the priesthood was given to me and I responded

My Vocation Story Is Still Unfolding

So, if I look at my vocation story, it started with my birth, it went along and the plans were slowly being carried out as I grew. That’s how coming into my working life, and now as a priest, I think my vocation story is still being written, it’s still unfolding. My vocation story has not ended because the Gospel said “You did not choose Me, I chose you. I chose you to go out and bear fruits, fruits that endure.” So, if you look at my background, my family, we were not well off. Yet the privilege of responding to the call to the priesthood was given to me and I responded. I responded because of my parents’ prayers and the prayers of many people (that’s why prayers for vocations are important). There are many among the religious like the Carmelites who have been praying for years and years (for us). That’s why after our ordination, the first place that we celebrate Mass besides our home parish is at the Carmelites. They have a list of all the seminarians and they pray for each one of us.

If we make it as a priest, then fine and if we don’t, we thank God that the discernment was right but maybe we are not called to be priests. I have explained my vocation story but it also gives you a chance to look at your own vocations, and see that your vocation discernment process began from birth and up till the day you die, the vocation story is being written out. For each one of us, especially single available young men and discerning, if you feel you have a priestly vocation, think about it but most importantly remember, God is with you and He is helping you to discern His Will in your life.

A Family That Prays Together Stays Together

As I said earlier, I had three relationships. As I look back now, I can see that the three relationships also had a part to play in moulding me towards this end. Sometimes, people respond early, sometimes they respond later in life. I felt that God had been patient with me. He calls and He is always there, guiding and showing the way. I also realised my family had been very instrumental in my Call. The family is the one who sows the seed. They do this not by pushing us to become a priest but introducing us to a life of prayer – family prayer. Every evening, my family would gather together to say the rosary. Later, I had friends who went wayward, I realised I could have gone down that road with them too but how come I didn’t? The only answer I could find was the graces we received from praying as a family. A family that prays together stays together – that’s so true.

Give God to Your Children

Parents have to ensure their children are involved with the life of the church. Encourage them and this is how the seeds of vocation are sown. Mary had always been there for me – always have and always will be. My names – John Joseph – are also very closely related to Our Lady. John being the disciple who took Mary into his house after Jesus went to Heaven and Joseph, being Mary’s spouse. Mary is the Mother of all priests and she intercedes for all of us. Also, connected to Our Lady is my birthday – 13 October. From 13 May 1970 – first time Our Lady appeared in Fatima to the three children, to 13 October, being the final apparition and the Miracle of the Sun. With this connection to Our Lady and with my names, I asked myself, what else can I be but a priest?

The Eucharist is My Everything

My ordination was in 1998, June 10. It was during the Doxology “Through Him, With Him, In Him” that I was called. It was appropriate that the card for my ordination shows the chalice and the host and the words come from Psalm 62. The Eucharist is the centre of our spiritual nourishment and for me it is my source, my strength, my everything. Best thing about being a priest is that I can celebrate the Eucharist. Nothing is more special because the miracle is performed everyday and I have been given this privilege even though I am not worthy at all. I can’t ask for anything more.

First published by The Serra Club, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore in 2006
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