I guess my vocation started when I was 11 or 12 years old before I became a Catholic. My parents (my father passed away in 2001) and my whole family were Taoist, and we were following the Chinese religions.
My First Contact with Jesus
When I was in Primary five or Six, we had this teacher who was very nice to the class. One day she came to class very distraught – normally she would be smiling. She was going to retire in a few years time and she was really like a grandmother to all of us. But this time, she was totally out of character. One of the girls in class asked her, “What’s wrong?” She seemed to be very different. After the class, she actually broke down. It turned out that her daughter had met with a car accident in Australia and was in ICU. She then composed herself and said that she would like all of us to pray to whatever God we believed in, pray that her daughter would be fine. I remember going home and at that time, we didn’t have any statues of Buddha or Kuan Yin at home but only some ancestral tablets and I knew that that wasn’t like praying to any God. So, I told myself, since my teacher was a Christian, I had better pray to Jesus. That, I supposed was my very first contact with Jesus.
When I was in Secondary One, my father had a dream. He dreamt that Our Lady appeared to him and said “Come into my house”.
Our Lady’s Invitation
My father was suffering from rheumatoid arthritis and it was a debilitating disease. I was in Primary Two, when he got the disease. In Primary Three, we started going to Novena Church. It was a family affair and we liked to go because after that, we would go to Toa Payoh and ate at the hawker centre. So, every Saturday was a family day for us. But at that time, attending Novena was just about singing the songs. I didn’t really pray and when everyone knelt, we just followed.
When I was in Secondary One, my father had a dream. He dreamt that Our Lady appeared to him and said “Come into my house”. That was all and he woke up with the conviction that Mary had asked him to become a Catholic. He gathered us and told us that he wanted to become a Catholic, and that my mother was agreeable. My youngest brother was just four or five years old, so he had no choice but to follow our parents. My second brother and I had to choose, and I had no problems becoming a Catholic (not knowing what I was getting myself into!). My younger brother also agreed. So, we all became Catholics and were baptised on 1 October 1977. We went through two years of instruction with a priest.
The first thing Father Loiseau did after we were baptised was to ask my brother and I to join the Legion of Mary. Then Father Loiseau discovered that I could play the organ. I was too young to play for Sunday Mass, but I would play on Saturdays whenever there was a wedding. I remember noticing all the blunders that the grooms and brides made on their wedding day. I told myself I was not going to make the same mistakes and wanted to plan a perfect wedding ceremony for myself. But God had other plans as you can see.
“Come, Follow Me”
When I was in Junior College, we went to church as a family. My youngest brother was an altar boy. In fact, everyone thought that my youngest brother would become a priest. As a teenager then, I didn’t really pay much attention in church. But one particular Sunday, after receiving Holy Communion and walking back to the pew, I had a very strange experience. Suddenly, everything was dead quiet. I could sense the sound around me but within me was this quietness and peace. I was kneeling down and feeling this peace. Somewhere along the line, I heard three words; “Come, follow Me”. And I was basking in this experience because it was very peaceful. I have never had the same experience since. My mother thought I had fallen asleep then because I was oblivious to my surroundings and was still kneeling when the congregation was already singing the Thanksgiving hymn. At that time, I knew that God was Calling me but no idea what He was Calling me to.
I had a girlfriend then and a priest cannot get married. I said, “Forget it” and I just let go of the idea.
The Discernment Process
Over the next few months, I secretly went to buy books concerning religious life and the Diocesan priesthood. I didn’t want my parents to know, as I was the eldest son in the family. I read and felt it was too difficult to become a priest especially when I had a girlfriend then and a priest cannot get married. I said, “Forget it” and I just let go of the idea.
When I was in the first year of university, something happened in my life. I went to a “hop” with two girls while my girlfriend was studying overseas. It made me realise that life was very empty even though my friends teased me about going out with two girls. Even my relationship with my girlfriend felt empty and superficial.
I actually knelt down and prayed and asked why? Immediately I got an answer – “Because you are not answering the Call.” Within me, I knew why. So, I broke off with my girlfriend and went to see my Parish Priest, Father Barthoulot and told him I wanted to join the seminary. My father had retired at that time. My two brothers were still studying and I told myself that I had better not continue in the university, as the fees were very high.
So, I conveyed all these to Father Barthoulot but he told me to continue with my studies and not to worry, as God will provide. After I graduated, he asked me if I were still sure about joining the seminary because if it were a true Calling it would still come back after two or three years of absence. After going through a vocation camp held in the seminary, I said, “YES”. He then gave me the forms and then came the most important thing – how to tell my parents?
If I got the job, I would carry on with my own life but if I did not, I would go to the seminary.
Breaking the News
I decided to tell my mother first. After dinner, I told my mother I had something very important to tell her. She sat down, looked at me and said, “I know, I know, you are going to the seminary.” Here I was, trying not to shock her but I had a shock instead. I asked her how she knew. She just said that my father and she knew. I asked her, “Is it because of my job?” This is because before I went to see Father Barthoulot, I had a bargain with God. I was applying for a job in the university and told the Lord that this was the only job I was going to apply. If I got the job, I would carry on with my own life but if I did not, I would go to the seminary.
So I went for the interview and they told me that if I did not hear from them in four weeks, it would mean someone else got the job. Four weeks later, no news. So, I called them and they told me they had sent out the letters and should reach me shortly.
Nothing came, so I went to see Father Barthoulot. My mother told me it was not because of the job. In fact, my father had made provisions for the education of my two younger brothers. Up till today, I still do not know how they knew that I had wanted to join the priesthood.
I went into the seminary after Chinese New Year. My parents accompanied me on the first day. My dad was rather quiet and just said, “Ok” but my mother told me, “You make sure that you complete this.”
After I joined the seminary, I received a letter from the university saying I got the job! I was terrified because I had said yes to God. Is God now telling me no? I thought about it and decided I will go through with it. I told the university, I had found a better “job”!
I went to see Father Barthoulot and he said that maybe God was trying to tell me that I was still good enough to get the job. It was not that I was not good enough for the job that I was in the seminary.
Advice to Young Men
I was ordained on 25 July 1995 at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary by Archbishop Gregory Yong. To those young men discerning their vocation in life, I would advise them to attend a vocation retreat as it is a good opportunity to start a discernment process. If God were Calling a young man to the priestly vocation, the retreat would prepare him to listen more intently to God.
First published by The Serra Club, Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore in 2006.
Editor’s note: Father Kenson’s story was transcribed from a sharing that he gave during one of the Evenings of Prayers for Vocations held at the Church of the Holy Cross.