Goals have to be SMART. Specific. Measurable. Actionable. Realistic. Time-sensitive. But my late grandmother never caught on to this corporate paradigm. She’d never heard of it. All she had was the foolish wisdom of the Gospel — “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing (Jn 15:5).”

And it showed in the way she approached the mission of bringing me to Christ.

Born into a nuclear family of free-thinkers, I never received any Sacraments, nor did I attend catechism classes as a child. But on my father’s side of the extended family, Grandma’s conversion brought Grandpa and seven of their eight children trickling to the baptismal fount. The eighth child who didn’t take up the faith, of course, was my father himself.

I spent my early childhood with my parents and Grandma in a cozy flat in Tiong Bahru. I accompanied Grandma to church regularly, on the pretext of her advanced age. We sometimes visited Novena Church, but for most part I remember going to the pre-beautiful Church of St Bernadette. Its dull grey walls were brightened with a pair of striking, unflattering banners that flanked the crucifix. The oscillating fans on the wall would screech endlessly. What did I take away from these services?

Nothing, really.

Louis and his grandma

I couldn’t even tell if it was a Mass or a Novena, in Mandarin or in Cantonese. Even when she brought me to an English service, still I understood nothing. All I knew was how to behave (hint: follow what everyone else is doing), and how not to receive Holy Communion (put my arms across my chest).

But these basics would go a long way in setting the stage for my later conversion.

So when we arrived home from church, she would summon me to her bedside and begin to talk to me about Jesus… in Cantonese. Her words fell on the ears of this Singaporean millennial who could barely make out everyday conversations in dialect!

Yet, it was an image I would never forget: My frail Grandma lying on her wooden pulpit, coughing and sighing as she struggled to tell a nonchalant five-year-old that Jesus loves him. These sermons ended only when she had exhausted her all and fell asleep — as though to prefigure what was to come.

My mother and I moved out while I was in kindergarten, thus ending my days of churchgoing and bedside catechism. Time flew, and my first day in secondary school at St Joseph’s Institution (SJI) ended with the most heartbreaking text I had ever received. Grandma had a fall and was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit.

She passed on a few days later, supposedly a failure at bringing the Good News to me.

I was devastated at her passing, and wondered what dread the rest of my years at SJI entailed.

Little would I know that three years later, I would step into the school chapel on the Ash Wednesday of 2011, emboldened by my churchgoing know-how — all thanks to my Grandma. As I felt the grainy ashes traced upon my forehead in the shape of a cross, I felt also a gentle stirring within my heart.

That was the best thing that ever happened in my life, and the mystery of my coming to faith continues to unfold itself each day.

This stirring would lead me first to attend Wednesday morning Masses at the school chapel, and then at St Bernadette’s for weekly Mass. In that parish, I found my way into a youth community there that played an unparalleled role in supporting me on my initiation journey.

Easter Vigil 2014, I walked white-clad down the aisle and to the fount of life. Chrism replaced the ashes, and I fell to my knees and made my First Holy Communion.

That was the best thing that ever happened in my life, and the mystery of my coming to faith continues to unfold itself each day. Among other things, I share the faith I have found through parish programmes, as well as contribute articles to Catholic.sg.

And the seed of faith was sown by an old lady who could not even speak my tongue, who lived apart from me from a tender age. Grandma never lived to sit in her favourite pew to witness the saving waters rush over me. Nonetheless, she simply did what she felt she needed to, and left the rest in the hands of God.

As St Mother Teresa of Calcutta once said, “God has not called me to be successful; He has called me to be faithful.” As Christians entrusted with varied missions, we are called to simply abide in the Jesus and wait for the fruits to grow by the Father’s grace. Faithfulness is our calling, while fruitfulness belongs to God alone.

Louis Tan
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