Unless you attend Mass at either the parishes of the Holy Spirit, Holy Trinity, Holy Family or Our Lady Star of the Sea, or attended any of the retreats he has conducted, you would probably find Fr Ignatius Huan unfamiliar.
After all, Fr Huan is ‘on loan’ from the Malaysia Church to the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary as a spiritual director and lecturer to the seminarians for the benefit of the several Malaysian seminarians here.
“I lecture on spirituality, give spiritual direction to the students, and conduct the monthly recollection,” Fr Huan said about his role in the seminary. “I’m available to all the students whenever they need to see me, even [if] they may not be my spiritual sons.”
Last year, all but three of the seminarians here were his spiritual sons.
From left to right: Fr Ignatius Huan, Fr Kenson Koh, Archbishop William Goh, Msgr Ambrose Vaz
Credit: Father Terence Kesavan
A Caring Father and More
As a spiritual father, he sees his ‘sons’ monthly to review their spiritual life, hears their confession, and resolves any spiritual difficulties they have. It is a role which he finds fulfilling, enjoyable and a privilege. But there are difficulties when students are not totally upfront and honest with him.
“Sometimes if I’m a bit suspicious… then I will confront them. But they can still deny and I don’t have proof that they are hiding something, so that’s the difficulty, the pain, the disappointment,” he said pensively.
This personal sharing between spiritual father and son is kept completely confidential between the two of them.
First-year theology student Br Jude David sees Fr Huan as “compassionate, a good listener, a wise counsel and inspiring”. He added that his spiritual father has “always supported and nurtured me in my vocation even in my challenging moments, to guide me in my vocation”.
Fourth-year theology student Br Martin Arlando from Malaysia described Fr Huan as one “who has always seen matters objectively both from the spiritual and worldly aspect”, and likens him to Christ who gives advice and direction that are practical, compassionate and full of love.
“I remember going to him once broken, confused and very sad, but he helped me to see the total opposite side of the situation,” Br Martin said, without elaborating further. “It was a great relief and [he showed his concern] even out of the official context of spiritual direction. He went beyond as a caring father towards me whenever we met [such as] while waiting for meals.”
In his role as a spiritual father, Fr Huan has seen seminarians take a short leave from the seminary for a while, or leaving permanently.
In some cases, the break is good for the seminarians with a valid and genuine reason. However, Fr Huan has occasionally felt disappointed when they did not consult him before leaving.
“I’m their spiritual father, but for such an important decision they don’t consult me. Usually these decisions are bad ones,” he said, “because in spiritual direction, we don’t make any decision in times of desolation”.
Fr Huan finds it especially disappointing for those who really do have the vocation to priesthood, but because they are unable to cope or lacked determination to persevere, have dropped out.
While feeling sadness and disappointment for a while is natural, Fr Huan has learnt to let go and not cling to the feeling. He understands that the students can have an equally fulfilling vocation outside of priesthood.
Disappointments are not new to Fr Huan especially concerning his priesthood.
One of the first he encountered was his family’s objection to him becoming a priest. His mother had then said: “So long as I’m alive, I will not give you permission to become a priest.”
He was 17 then, one of two converts in the family of non-Catholics. He had been journeying with a Jesuit priest with the intention of joining the Society of Jesus, and admitted that the objection was “a big disappointment”.
Although his calling to the priesthood persisted, he went on to become a secondary school science teacher in Segamat and Kulai, Johor, where he found meaning and happiness. Fr Huan added that his parish priest even affirmed that the former is “a good teacher”.
Yet, there was one particular week which he recalls, when a friend and a Canossian Sister whom he did not know, both asked him if he had thought of joining the priesthood.
“But I was afraid to be let down and disappointed by God. Fifteen years earlier, I had wanted to join, but my mother objected,” he recalled.
This time, Fr Huan said, he wanted proof from God that He was really calling him to the priesthood. He asked the Lord for a sign in the form of a shooting star on one of his evening walks, but it and other requested signs never came.
Instead, what he got was a personal message while contemplating John 21 one evening. He plucked up the courage to resign from his job – a big risk as it meant losing his pension benefits. What would happen if he did not become a priest?
He eventually managed to convince his family members whose blessings he left with. By then, his mother had already passed away.
We cannot run away from suffering, disappointments and failures. I think what I went through in the past has helped me to become more compassionate towards the students.
Ignatius was 35 when he entered the seminary and “too old” to join the Jesuits, he said. Seeing the shortage of diocesan priests, he chose to join the seminary to become one.
There were times he encountered difficulties during his formation and wanted to leave. But an encounter with a terminally-ill Canossian Sister changed his mind.
He visited the Sister to say goodbye. When she asked him about life in the seminary, Fr Huan had complained to her and was wallowing in self-pity.
Before she left, she told him: “Ignatius, don’t you worry, I will offer up my suffering for you that you may persevere in your vocation.”
That experience, Fr Huan said was life-giving, and whenever he wanted to leave the seminary, he would be reminded of the nun’s promise.
This sparked off his interest in redemptive suffering, a theme Fr Huan frequently explores in his preaching and retreats.
He added, “We cannot run away from suffering, disappointments and failures. I think what I went through in the past has helped me to become more compassionate towards the students.”
Br Jude who has heard Fr Huan’s sharing agreed: “It’s encouraging because he himself has been through a similar journey in his years as a seminarian, and able to support us better.”
But Fr Huan’s disappointments did not stop there. His dream for his priesthood was shattered when Bishop James Chan of the Melaka-Johor diocese, where Fr Huan was based, asked him to take charge of the Good Shepherd Seminary in Melaka.
“It was never my dream to be a formator. I found it difficult to accept. I gave up my teaching career with a dream of serving in the parish and now I go back to teaching again. What’s the meaning of this?” he said.
But during a retreat in Rome, he realised his personal vocation in the priesthood – to train the seminarians to do the outreach which on his own would be limited. And thus, he was able to embrace his role as a seminary formator.
A Keen Interest in Spirituality
Fr Huan is one who understands that formation goes beyond the four walls of the seminary. As such, he spends his weekends conducting retreats in Singapore and Malaysia.
He has studied Ignatian spirituality of finding God in all things in the Jesuit-run Gregorian University in Rome. He has also studied psycho-spirituality of understanding oneself at an unconscious level in the Philippines and India. In addition, he has an interest in Carmelite spirituality which is about contemplative prayer and the different methods of prayer. All these he integrates into his retreats.
As such, he spends most of his time reading books on spirituality and preparing slideshow presentations for his retreats. Among these books are those written by Archbishop Fulton Sheen and Fr Henri Nouwen.
Br Martin says that Fr Huan makes spirituality simple and easy to understand. The seminarian also praised the latter’s knowledge and usage of PowerPoint as “fantastic”, and would sometimes consult the latter of some of the features.
Brs Jude and Martin both describe Fr Huan as a quiet person, with a lighter side that sometimes pops up.
“Fr Huan is a great person to be with once you know him,” said Brother Jude.
25 years of Priesthood
Fr Huan who celebrates his silver jubilee in March will return to Malaysia at the end of 2010. He hopes to do pastoral work and provide spiritual formation for others sans the administrative workload of a parish priest.
As Fr Huan looks back at his 25 years of his service, he said he is filled with gratitude.
“I find a lot of fulfilment, meaning, purpose in my life. No regrets really.”