My Vocation Journey
I was born in July 1931, the youngest in a Catholic family. I had my First Holy Communion at age 12, after three years of catechism.
In Secondary 3, I joined the Young Christian Students (YCS), which had a group in the school where I studied. YCS taught us to reflect on the Gospel: to seek, to judge and to act. It is from this that the idea of a missionary priesthood developed. I was thinking of Africa at the beginning, which was better known than and closer to Asia.
At 17, I did my A levels in a Catholic college, which in France took only a year. This is where I came to know about the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP). In September 1949, at 18, I entered their seminary in Paris. It was a good 800 km away from Southern France! The distance did not deter me and after two years of Philosophy studies there, I dutifully enlisted in the National Service for 18 months, serving as a paramedic in a military hospital.
Following that, I spent a few months in the theology seminary in Paris. From there I was sent to Rome to further my studies with a Licentiate in Theology at the Gregorian University, from 1953 to 1956.
On 3 July 1955, I was ordained a Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) priest. I received my appointment to go to Singapore in January 1956, but it wasn’t until June 1957 that I boarded a ship to travel to the country. In the meantime I was sent to England to learn some English, from September 1956 to April 1957.
I finally, arrived in Singapore on 3 July 1957. On the ride to Bras Basah Road (to the Bishop’s residence) I was informed that I would be learning Chinese. But three weeks later, I was sent to Church of the Holy Family to assist MEP Fr Paul Munier for a few months and to have some rest after the long sea voyage
After several months, I was sent Kuala Lumpur to learn Chinese in a government school, where fellow students were all non-Chinese people. This adventure lasted from February 1958 to late 1959.
In February 1960, shortly after completing the language course, the appointment to be a full-fledge assistant to MEP Fr Pierre Abrail at the Church of St Bernadette came. I relished the practice of preaching in Chinese every fortnight, but my joy at serving in the booming parish was short-lived.
With a very heavy heart I left the Church of St Bernadette in July 1960 and reluctantly made my way to the Penang College General, where I had to teach in Latin until December 1961.
Back in Singapore that year, I was asked to stay with Fr Munier again at the church in Katong until July 1963. However, before the stint was completed, I was informed once again that I would be teaching in Penang. I experienced, yet again, a very painful parting but was promised that this would be temporary posting.
1963 was an exciting time for the Church. Vatican II was taking place and that was the great blessing of my life. Those of us at the College General were young and very enthusiastic about what was going on at the Vatican Council and were very much involved in sharing with the people the various Vatican documents. With the Council very much on our minds, we did a complete review of the way of teaching at the seminary. We shifted from Latin to English, had smaller classes and became specialised in subjects. I became a specialist in the Sacraments. At the same time we started giving seminars and retreats on Vatican II.
Although I was told that my posting would be temporary, I taught at the seminary until December 1968.
On returning to Singapore at the end of 1968, I was posted to the Church of the Sacred Heart to assist Fr James Pang. I was also made chaplain of YCS and in charge of catechetics for the archdiocese.
At long last, I could take a ‘holy leave’ in April 1972 and so I went back to my homeland for a while. Returning to Singapore in November that year, I was posted to the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (OLPS) to assist the parish priest, MEP Fr Louis Amiotte. In February 1973 I took over as parish priest.
With the help of MEP Fr Albert Brys, OLPS initiated and went into full speed with the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The parish at that time extended from Eunos Link to Changi Point. It 16 km long! Every month we celebrated Mass in the maximum security jail in Changi Prison. We also organised the Parish Renewal Experience and were very much involved with the youth in St Patrick’s School and CHIJ Katong Convent.
For a few years, Frs Alfred Chan, Eugene Vaz, Joseph Tan, Carlo Ly and Johnson Fernandez would take turns to celebrate Mass at the various churches in the East District.
As this was the time of the implementation of Vatican II, we established neighbourhood groups in 1976, and the Charismatic Renewal in 1980. I got involved in Marriage Encounter (ME), Engaged Encounter (EE) and Choice in the early 1980s and was elected the MEP Superior in Singapore-Malaysia in 1982.
When the Archdiocese of Singapore established St Francis Xavier Major Seminary in 1983, I was engaged to teach, while remaining the parish priest of OLPS. I was taken out of OLPS in October 1996 and posted to the Church of St Michael as the “happy parish priest” in 1997. I had by then also become part of the Bishop’s council, while still involved in ME and EE.
At the end of February 2002, I was appointed parish priest at the Church of St Teresa for a term of six years, which extended to June 2015.
Ask Fr Arro
How did you know you were being called to the priesthood?
I had no special revelation from heaven. It came slowly through my involvement and being at the service of other students. I was studying in a government school and I belonged to a group of Catholic students, called Young Christian Students (YCS), which we still have in Singapore. It was there that the idea of a more complete service through the priesthood was born.
Right from the beginning it was very clear that my calling would be to be a priest outside France, to be a missionary. And that was confirmed sometime later when, during a Sunday Mass, we had a preaching by a missionary from India.
After that, I went to a Catholic college to finish my A-levels. There I met another guy who was also doing his A-levels and wanted to be a missionary. So we spoke and, through him, I came to know of the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP). We decided we would be joining the MEP, although we did not know much about it. We knew simply that it was a missionary society sending missionaries to Asia.
In our diocese, there was a tradition of seminarians going there to become missionaries and so we contacted them and were accepted. My parents did not object although they were very surprised as I was in a government school. At that time in France, Catholic schools were not subsidized by the government. My parents could afford to send me only to a government school, but they were good practicing Catholics.
My father simply said, “Well, you want that. It’s quite serious. If you do it, do it well.” So in September 1949, when I was 18, I went to Paris to join the MEP seminary.
How would you describe your faith as a child?
For a time I was an altar boy in a convent. I served at Mass on Sundays, and in the afternoons, I went for vespers. I was just 10 or 11 and I suppose these basically helped me to keep busy more than anything else.
When I was about 17, I attended a Catholic college and it was there that I ‘upgraded’ my storehouse of Catholic knowledge and practices. I was really comfortable with it. I was curious by nature and I was very interested in the liturgy, the traditions and history of the Church including its many missionary figures.
If you did not become a priest, what career would you have chosen?
I think I would have enjoyed being a farmer. I like animals very much. At that time I was living in a small village where most of people were farmers. My father obviously didn’t influence me with his choice of work – he was an accounts clerk – and for some reason, I enjoyed the life of a farmer so I think I would have enjoyed becoming one.
After your ordination, was there ever a time when you doubted your vocation?
No never, although there were difficult times, especially when I had to leave Singapore to go to the Penang seminary and teach in Latin. This despite my having learned Chinese for two years.
I felt unjustly done by on that occasion because I was just out of the language school and suddenly within three months, I was given the order to go to the College General, when one of the professors fell sick. I had just spent two years slogging for five hours a day, six days a week, trying to master the Chinese language.
I may not have agreed with the change in plans, yet the Lord works things out in His own way. It was during these years in Penang that the Second Vatican Council took place. We were a group of young professors – six of us in our early 30s – and we were really enthusiastic about the Council. It was a renewal for all of us. These were really very fruitful years and they allowed me, up till today, to be able to speak of the Council and even be inspired by it.
That I was able to teach in the seminary here for 23 years is precisely thanks to this experience. Had I been assigned to a parish here in Singapore at that time, I would not have been able to have gone through that particular experience which although it was certainly very testing back then, it was also definitely, a really most privileged time.
During that period, I had had some problems with my health and I was praying every day that I would be able to spend my whole life in Singapore-Malaysia. I had no choice but to come to Singapore as I was appointed by the Superior but then it became for me, the Promise Land. I was sent to Singapore and here I have stayed.
Were you part of the transition called for by the Vatican Council?
Oh most certainly. At the levels of the seminary, the liturgy and catechism, I was involved in the regional bodies, which included Singapore and Malaysia, and we met quite often. While in Penang I went to Kuala Lumpur for meetings. When I returned to Singapore, we worked together very closely for years.
How did Vatican II impact you?
It was a paradigm shift to start from the human reality and to see the Church as the people of God, in an encounter with Christ and with one another. We moved from a teaching Church to a Church where we could experience Christ within the community. Scripture became the key point of theology with Christ as the foundation. Then the people became the next focus so that we had moved from a doctrinal point of view. That still had its place which was at the end, as a conclusion. We could not leave out the role of the laity as well as its responsibility in the building up of the Church.
It was really liberating! From a theology, which was a repetition of the Church documents of the Council, we went into a much more challenging concept and approach. This time what was emphasized was the response of the whole person. In other words, an encounter or a personal experience of God by the people.
Who were some of your students at the seminary?
My first batch of students were people like Archbishop [Emeritus] Nicholas Chia, Archbishop [Emeritus] Murphy Pakiam, Fr Robert Balhetchet and Fr Aloysius Doraisamy.
After that, there was Fr Patrick Goh and the two Fr Tans; these were among the priests from those days. Here at St Francis Xavier Major Seminary, my students included most of the priests who are around the age of Archbishop William Goh.
What are you passionate about as a man of God?
Well in the parish, my priority is RCIA and reaching out to non-Catholics – especially through the schools – as well as through the Marriage Encounter and Engaged Encounter weekends, where you have quite a number of non-Catholics.
Essentially I adopt a missionary approach to non-Catholics. I am the chaplain for CHIJ Kellock Convent and St Teresa’s Convent. Between the two schools, I sow the seeds of the Gospel through Bible sharing, the occasional Mass, some sessions with the students on Teachers Day, Children’s Day, Founders Day, the installation of prefects and so on and so forth.
I am trying to have a sense of what’s happening in Singapore and in the lives of the people here. Unless you sense what’s going on at the grassroots level, your sowing of the Gospel is going to be on the rocks. You must know the needs of the people, where they have come from. An understanding of what’s going on in Singapore and how all of it affects the people becomes important.
As regards this, there is a very important activity that should be carried out, but that I can no longer do so due to my old age – that of visiting the parishioners.
I would usually visit parishioners at night.
When I was physically able to, I would usually visit these parishioners at night. In fact, when I was in Siglap (at OLPS Church) we pioneered a grouping called the Small Christian Communities as early as 1976. When I was 80, I suffered from poor night vision in particular, so because it was unsafe for me to drive during those hours, I had to discontinue the home visits.
Among the reasons we made such visits, included getting to know the children who were going to take their first Holy Communion or Confirmation. Basically, it was to be in touch with the families, to have a sense of the respective family’s life, the needs of the kids and so forth.
Was there ever a spiritual father or writer that influenced your thinking as a priest?
Specifically no, although the various friendships with all the priests, living and working with them, going through the numerous seminars, retreats and renewals etc, all have played a role in nurturing me and helping me to grow as a priest.
Do you have a favourite sacrament?
Definitely, it’s the Sacrament of Reconciliation. That’s where I think people are at their best because they are open and they are asking.
Also especially here at the Church of St Teresa, I like the Sacrament of Matrimony. This is a church of marriages! During the past 10 years, we have had an average of 100 to 120 marriages per year. I find that again, this is a time when people are very open and willing to accept God in their lives.
If a young priest came to you with doubts about his vocation, what would you tell him?
Pray. That would be my first word. Then I would ask him to share with a few older priests as well as seek out a spiritual director.
Name three qualities that priests today should cultivate.
To my mind the basic requirement for a priest, especially for a diocesan priest, is common sense so before speaking of qualities, we should ensure this is present in that seminarian.
A priest is essentially a counsellor so an experience of people in their daily lives and having an idea of what’s happening there is very important. The priest should not be speaking from the top of his head as it were. In addition to these then, the priest should also possess good listening skills, patience, compassion, and then be able to provide clear guidance.
If a young man came to you saying he wanted to join the seminary but the parents would not allow him, what would you say to him?
Be patient with his parents and steady in his own determination – the Lord will show him the way.
If you get to speak to the parents, what would you tell them?
For a start, I would let them speak. Then I would hear what they had to say. I would try to hear and discern their feelings. Next I would speak about the gift of freedom to their children. Finally, I would pray with them, to ask the Lord to show us His way. That would be what I would say as well as what I would do.
What do you pray when facing a difficulty?
First, I pray to become aware of the presence of Christ at the very heart of the difficulty. Then I pray for patience. Next I pray for wisdom to see the signs of God and finally, I pray to abandon myself in His hands, asking Him again, to show me the way.
Which words from the Gospels sustain you?
One of the basic texts is the Parable of the Sower, then the Good Shepherd assembling the sheep then going out searching for the lost one.
You have been serving in Marriage Encounter and Engaged Encounter for 35 years, how have they helped you?
Well these have given me the opportunity to sit down with the people, get comfortable with them as they speak, to really listen to them and then to share my feelings and thoughts. So ultimately and in a more particular way of course, I’ve come to understand better the life of married people and families, that in so doing, I discover how best to serve them.
Do you have any particular concern about the Church?
I would not like a Church that acts from the top down. I believe a Church should act from the bottom up, to begin at the grassroots level and to be one among the people. I would like the Church to carry on the incarnation of Christ after all, He became a man and lived among the people.
He knew the people and their needs. He remained a carpenter for 30 years and only preached for three.That may appear such a waste of time and yet, I find it curious. He could have shortened the time by two or three years and gave more time to better training the apostles, but no, He wanted to live the life of the people. The same then for us, the Church, we must be able to live the life of the people, to be able to sense their need as well as the ways they are changing.
The pastoral approach in Singapore has changed a lot throughout the years. Whatever the processes and procedures, it must be that the Church begins at the beginning, with the very incarnation of Christ and from there, to redemption through Him. So for me, I see it all begins at the RCIA, the youth, the convent schools, wherever young people are.
I believe that works very well. In YCS we had the message: to see, to judge and to act. This means we need to see what’s going on, to make a judgement or assessment of what’s going on – the needs, the pros, the cons – and then to act. Making assumptions is dangerous so we must avoid that.
That is why when I visit the people, what I want to hear about, is their life. I don’t want to speak about the Church. I want to hear about the work of the husband, the wife and then eventually the children, like which school are they in? Primary or Secondary? What are their difficulties in school? What do they hope to do? For me that is essential that as a pastor, I should know that.
I’ve been teaching the Sacraments for 23 years. Again, these were rooted in the daily lives of the people in Israel at the beginning. Baptism was existing in a different form among the Jews. The Eucharist comes from the Passover meal, which was part of the life of the people.
The Sacraments made the people discover that they have within themselves, the very need for those Sacrament. The people should discover this for themselves and we should not have to impose it from above. For instance, we can’t tell them, ‘You are a Catholic so you get married in Church.’
Milestones in Fr Arro’s Priestly Journey
|Jul 1931||:||Born the youngest child in a Catholic family|
|1940||:||Age nine, starts receiving catechism lessons|
|1946||:||Age 15 (Sec 3), joins Young Catholic Students in school|
|1948||:||Takes A levels in a Catholic college|
|1949 – 1951||:||Age 18, joins MEP seminary in Paris|
|1952||:||Enters National Service|
|1953 – 1956||:||Studies at Gregorian University, Rome. Completes a Licentiate in Theology|
|Jul 1955||:||Priestly ordination|
|Jan 1956||:||Receives appointment to Singapore|
|Sep 1956 – Apr 1957||:||Studies some English in England|
|Jul 1957||:||Arrives in Singapore|
|Aug 1957||:||Assistant priest, Church of the Holy Family|
|Feb 1958 – 59||:||Studies Chinese in a government school in Kuala Lumpur|
|Feb 1960||:||Assistant priest, Church of St Bernadette|
|Jul 1960 – Dec 1961||:||Teaches at Penang College General|
|Dec 1961 – Jul 1963||:||Assistant priest, Church of the Holy Family|
|Jul 1963 – Dec 1968||:||Teaches at Penang College General|
|Dec 1968 – Apr 1972||:||Assistant Priest, Church of the Sacred Heart;
Chaplain of Young Christian Students and in charge of catechetics in the archdiocese
|Nov 1972 – Oct 1996||:||Assistant and then parish priest, Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour|
|Early 1980s||:||Gets involved in Marriage Encounter, Engaged Encounter, Choice|
|1982||:||Becomes MEP Superior in Singapore-Malaysia|
|1983 – 2005||:||Teaches at St Francis Xavier Major Seminary|
|1997 – 2002||:||Parish priest, Church of St Michael|
|2002 – Jun 2015||:||Parish priest, Church of St Teresa|
|Jul 2015 – present||:||Resident priest, Church of St Teresa|
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