A Gift of a Prayerful Mother
God must have loved me – He gave me a loving mother who was very prayerful. Even before I was born, my mother was known to be a devout and God-fearing woman. As a young child, I would observe my mother praying the rosary devoutly every day before the altar, often waking up early in the morning to do so. So when I was a young boy of about four years old, as far as I could remember, my mother would bring me along with her to the Church of Our Lady of Lourdes to pray to Our Lady of the Immaculate Conception every Saturday morning. After which, she would proceed to Novena Church to attend at least two sessions of the Novena. Of course, such long prayer sessions were rather boring to me at that young age. I suppose Our Lady must have looked on me with love then. In retrospect, I realised that it must have been my mother’s faith and devotion to Our Lady that sowed the seed of my vocation without my consciously being aware of it.
Gift of Faith and Prayer
God must have loved me for this gift of faith which developed further. Already when I was only in Primary Two and right up to my ‘A’ Levels, I would without fail spend an hour or more to pray every day in the nearby church before going to school. Then, I did not feel there was anything exceptional , or odd for a young boy like me to enjoy praying when boys my age were more interested in running about an playing before the school sessions start. Not only was I there in church praying before going to school but also during recess time and even after school. What was it that attracted me to pray in the church? I really did not know. Perhaps, it was the silence and the tranquillity of the church. And at that tender age, what did I pray? The rosary of course! However, by 12 years old, I was already praying the Scriptures every day.
Then when I was in Primary Four, God showed His love for me by drawing me closer to Our Blessed Mother Mary. I did not know how, but one day out of the blue, I simply decided to attend the Novena at Nativity Church on my own. In fact, I did not even know what a novena service was like then. But finding it meaningful, I continued attending the Novena every Saturday.
It was about this time, that the Crusaders were recruiting members at school. I joined it without knowing what it was all about. Actually, I had wanted very much to join the Cubs/Scouts at school but at that time, my parents could not afford to pay for the Scouts’ uniform, which cost $4. Hence joining the Crusaders was the only choice left. I went for the Saturday meetings to listen to Bible stories and of course to play with my friends. I was so impressed by the stories told to us by the teacher, especially the story of Moses and the 10 plagues that when I was only 12 years old, I used up all my savings of $50 to buy a Children’s Bible. Later when I was 14 years old, I even bought the complete Bible by Msgr Knox, from Nativity Church. I remember with joy the fervour and excitement whenever I attended the annual National Crusaders’ rally at St. Anthony’s Convent. In those days, it was a big event for me because I never attended such large gatherings in other context. It was simply awesome to me.
A Faithful Young Servant
Two years later when I was in Primary Six, a friend of mine who was a fellow Crusader, asked me to join the altar servers. Once more, I felt God must have loved me! I never dared to think that I would be able to serve at Mass at the altar because we had to learn the prayers in Latin and unless we pass the servers test, we would not be allowed to serve at the altar. But joined I did and passed I did! Eventually, because of my commitment and dedication I held the title of “Best Altar Server” for many years in the society. I was diligent and determined to do my best. Subsequently, I was promoted to be one of the instructors to train new altar servers as well. Whether out of fear, duty or dedication, I woke up every morning at five in order to walk to church, which was about 15 minutes away from my house. But the frightening thing was that I had to walk pass the cemetery every morning! So whenever I reached the cemetery, I would run all the way to the church. For the love of God, I endured such risks so that I could serve at Mass every morning or serve on behalf of the other servers who were absent. I proved to be one of the top altar boys that served at the most number of Masses each month. Besides daily Masses, I also would take every opportunity to volunteer to serve at every funeral, wedding and other church services as well. God must have loved me very much because when I became an altar server, I was attending daily Mass without fail even when I was not on duty. On looking back, it could only be possible with the immense grace of God’s love. My life became more and more centered on the church.
Drawn to the Priesthood
When I was in Secondary Two, the initial desire of becoming a priest stirred in my heart. I rationalised that the idea was too far-fetched or remote even to think of as I felt I was too great a sinner and too stupid to be a priest. So, I gently put the thought aside. By this time, I had advanced to the role of being one of the leaders in the Altar Boys Society. God must have loved me for it was in this group that I felt a strong sense of belonging, of being loved and needed. Every year, we would go carolling together as a group and end with a barbecue. The period between my Secondary Two and college days was perhaps the happiest years in my life as a youth.
When I was in Secondary Four, the Redemptorist Fathers came to my school to give us a mission talk. I was very impressed by them especially by their cassock, the rosary that hung round their waists and the big crucifix they wore. I was also immensely delighted that I could serve at the Masses they celebrated at these school missions. As I got to know them better, I consulted one of the more approachable priests, Father P.J. O’Neil on whether I could become a priest. I remember that he told me to pray and study hard, which I did. The idea of becoming a priest gave me a greater impetus to complete my ‘A’ Levels studies.
For Love of Our Lady
At any rate, again, I felt that God must have loved me. For in 1973, when I was 16 years old, the church had a parish mission by the Redemptorist priests. I was so fired up after the mission talk, that together with my friends, we managed to gather about 120 boys and girls to pray the rosary every evening in the church. During the day, we invited the boys from our school to pray the rosary in church during recess time. An average of 20 to 50 boys would forego their recess daily in order to pray the rosary together. It was certainly an edifying experience! Our Lady must have guided my friends and me for what we had done would not have been possible without her intercession and help!
For on hindsight, I just cannot imagine how we could get so many young people to join us to pray the rosary daily – something viewed as a boring thing for young people to do! But somehow we did it and the group continued to be sustained for quite a number of years even after I had left the school. So fervent was my love for Our Lady, that I would put up posters all over the school compound to encourage the students to pray the rosary. I must have been deemed quite a fanatic devotee of Our Lady! Perhaps, it was also the support of the Gabrielite brothers that kept up my enthusiasm.
An Elder to the Youths
Upon reflection, I think my involvement in church activities gave me a great sense of fulfilment. It helped me discover and hone my leadership skills, instilling in me the joy of service in the ministry. As a leader in the Altar Boys Society, and the leader of the rosary group, I learnt how to deal with my peers of both genders. I became a counsellor to many of them and they would often turn to me to resolve their personal and relationship problems. I was greatly respected as a kind of “elder” in the group who could provide level-headed solutions o their problems.
After I left school and began my stint in National Service, God continued to manifest His love for me. For when my family resettled at Marine Parade, the late Father P. Bartholout, who was then the Parish Priest of the Church of the Holy Family enlisted me to be a catechist. It was at this time, that I began to consider seriously whether I could have a priestly calling. During the time of my National Service, Redemptorist Father O’Neil had the knowledge that I wanted to join the seminary, invited me to their postulants’ gathering. I went a few times but somehow did not feel at home with them. So I eventually dropped out from their monthly gatherings and I tried to suppress the idea of becoming a priest. I began to think of a career instead.
Started a Career Instead
So after the completion of my National Service, I started work in a bank. Nevertheless, my faith and spiritual life continued to grow. As before, every morning I would attend Mass followed by an hour of prayer, meditation and rosary before I left for work. But the thought of joining the seminary kept stirring in me especially when I heard sermons relating to vocations or when people asked me to consider the possibility of being a priest. I tried to distract myself by giving more attention to a career in the bank. I had good prospects of being a dealer and my colleagues were also very nice people. I enjoyed their friendship and company. We would meet for squash or tennis during the weekends and often visited one another. During lunch or dinner breaks (i.e. if we were working overtime), we would play table tennis in the recreation room. The people were simply great. We were just like a happy family.
God Persisted in His Calling
Still, the calling to be a priest kept stirring in my heart. I felt God’s Call to serve His people. There was this apostolic zeal in me of wanting to bring Christ to the world, educating fellow Catholics in the knowledge of their faith; responding to the attacks of the Protestants and bringing conversion to those who were lukewarm in their faith. When I could no longer resist that Voice, I plucked up the courage to make an appointment to see my Parish Priest and told him that I wished to join the seminary.
My Parish Priest, Father Alfred Chan knew me since I was a young boy as he was ministering at the Nativity Church during my childhood days there. He immediately asked me to see Father Francis Lau, the Rector of the Minor Seminary. Once my application was accepted, I was brought to see the Bishop. After getting his approval and blessings, I got ready to go to the Major Seminary in Penang. I tendered my resignation from my work to the surprise of my boss who kept reassuring me that good prospects in the bank were awaiting me and it would be foolish of me to leave. My colleagues were all equally puzzled at my leaving because they knew I was very happy at my work place. Initially, I told them that I was leaving for further studies but later because of the barrage of questions, I had to tell them that I was joining the seminary. They were dumb-founded and did not ask any more questions. However, some simply could not understand why I would want to give up my life to be a priest!
At about the same time, I plucked up the courage to speak to my father as well. He did not say a single word when I broke the news to him. It was such a tense moment. I knew that he was not happy with my decision even though he did not object. But I could understand his disappointment because being the youngest in the family, I knew he expected me to take good care of him in his old age. I casually told my mom as well. Her response was, “Do whatever you like.” So after some tearful farewells from my childhood friends from Hougang and the colleagues in Barclays Bank, I left for College General in Penang. I cried much because I really missed them and their friendship as I had developed a close bonding with them. They were also the source of my emotional and even spiritual support.
Seminary Life and Initial Trials
The first couple of years in the seminary were difficult years of adaptation. It was not easy to get back to studies after so many years. I was not confident about coping with the studies. Studying philosophy, something so new and strange to me, was really quite a challenge and I struggled with it. Besides the studies, I had to cope with a totally new environment.
As I did not begin my seminary formation from the Minor Seminary, I went to the Major Seminary without knowing anyone. Hence at the initial stages, I had great difficulty trying to find my place in the community. Almost everyone was stranger to me and I felt very lonely without any emotional support in a strange place with people from a myriad of differing cultures. Whenever I was not understood, I would then begin to greatly miss my friends and former colleagues back home and loneliness set in. However, as the years passed by, with new friendships forged at the seminary; problems of loneliness faded away and I began to enjoy my seminary life.
As I journeyed in my later years in the seminary, I encountered less and less problems. However, living in a community is not always easy. Sometimes we have misunderstandings in our relationships. But through such difficulties, I learnt to be more sensitive, tolerant and accepting of those whom I live with. I grew in humility, patience, love and a greater self-awareness. My studies were also improving each passing year and I realised that I had some grey matter after all! Most of all, by the grace of God, I remained faithful to my prayer life from my first day in the seminary – correction, since as a young boy! I would spend an hour of personal adoration before the Blessed Sacrament every evening before Vespers. This was and still is the source of my strength for my faith, spiritual life and priestly vocation. Yes, God must have truly loved me and sustained me throughout my seminary formation especially in those times when I felt discouraged, by giving me the gift of faith and the gift of prayer.
Source of My Strength and Blessings
Throughout all the years, it is God’s unfailing love for me that has continued to sustain me through all the ups and downs. It is my deep conviction that the strength of my priestly ministry lies in my fidelity to my prayer life, meditation and contemplation of the Face of Christ; and a special devotion to Our Lady especially in praying the rosary. Therefore, no matter how busy my schedule may be, I would never forego my daily quiet time with the Lord before the Blessed Sacrament, wherein He is truly Present, even if it means that I have to sacrifice my sleep. Besides the daily Eucharist, my quiet time with the Lord is the source of my strength.
Through this sharing of my life history and journey, what is clear is that God has chosen me to be His priest despite my sinfulness and unworthiness. Throughout my life thus far, I am conscious of the fact that God has protected me and showered His love on me by sending me the right people to help me grow in my faith and spiritual life. He greatly blessed me with a God-loving mother whose devout prayer life was the nourishment for the seed of my priestly vocation while I was formed in her womb. It was by her exemplary prayer life that led me intuitively to develop my own prayer life upon which the grace of God worked. In all, I believe that I was able to faithfully answer God’s calling to be a priest because of my upbringing, my involvement in church activities, the Catholic ambience I was brought up in and the encouragement I received from people who cared – all of which made possible by God’s grace.
Remaining in His Grace
Finally, I wish to conclude that although God has been patient with me, I pray that I would never take His grace for granted. As much as God has been there to protect me from all dangers and misfortunes, I must not be ungrateful by taking His love lightly. I know that if I do not continue to remain in His grace through a faithful prayer life, I will bring about my own destruction and consequently destroy the gift of my priestly vocation that God has so graciously given to me and to His Church. If I do not remain vigilant, then all the graces that God has given me since my childhood in order for me to answer His Calling would go to waste if I were to lose His precious gift to me.
My Priesthood – My Identity
Most of all, to me, to lose my priesthood would be to lose my identity. For the priesthood is what I have been called to when God formed me in my mother’s womb. I know deep in my heart that my life can only be complete if I serve the Lord with total dedication, selflessly and faithfully as His priest. Indeed, I want to continue to surrender my life to the Lord because He has loved me so unconditionally, He alone is the Foundation, Principle and Source of my life and happiness; and because loving and serving Him is for my ultimate happiness in life.
I pray that my life in itself will be a pleasing prayer to the Lord. Amen.
First published by © The Serra Club of Singapore in 2006.