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It is my joy, O Lord to do Your Will
By Reverend Father Aloysius Ong
Ordained to the Priesthood on 29 June 2003
All the passages below are taken from the book “Called & Chosen” published in 2006 by the Serra Club of Singapore. Its website address is www.serrasingapore.org and the book can be purchased from various Catholic bookshops.
I remember once seeing a picture of the Laughing Jesus that has the words, "It is my joy, 0 Lord, to do Your Will" and was captivated by the juxtaposition of meanings made by the picture and that bible verse (Psalm 40:8). I had been born and bred a Catholic all my life and, in many instances and experiences, been taught, encouraged, advocated to strive to do and seek the Will of God the best that I can.
Yet the joy of it all doesn't seem to sit in comfortably with what the psalmist wants to imply. That is the paradox of that picture---an engaging paradox. It posed me with a challenge on how my perceptions and understanding are, about doing the Will of God.
For myself, I realised that it was so easy to go through life without realising the very Presence of God that mysteriously, and yet so powerfully, engages us to follow the paths He sets before us. The decisions that we make and the living out of our lives according to those decisions either take us closer to our Creator or lead us astray. Looking back at my own life I can see a series of ups and downs, a roller-coaster ride really, of events and experiences that reflect a dialogue between my personal desires and the Way of Christ.
My name is Aloysius
My name is Aloysius. Born in Muar, Johor, I am the eldest of the four siblings in a family of six. The year I was born saw the drawing close of the Second Vatican Council, which saw profound and challenging changes coming into the Catholic Church. Meanwhile my Primary school days were very carefree and due to my father's work transfers and promotions saw me schooling in Muar, Segamat and Petaling Jaya. My siblings and I also had great rapport and closeness with our cousins from my mother's side of the family in Segamat that we found no lack of healthy fun and play and interaction within this extended and familial setting.
They were instrumental in shaping my perceptions and ideas of the world as I grew up in an extended Catholic family where the necessary Catholic settings and values were imbibed and lived out, even if I were unconscious of these elements at that time.
The sense of obedience and respect of the elderly were two prominent virtues that formed the bedrock of stability and order in the family that I was in. This was crucial as they kept us together in the sea of transformation and turbulence that were going around the world and in the Church at that time.
My Own RCIA
I would usually share my sentiments about how my Catholic life is a given thing to me as compared to, say, those who go through and work out the process of joining the faith through the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) programme.
But I have to admit that while this may be true due to the circumstances, it was my parents and the elders of the family (grandparents, aunts and uncles) that shaped and gave meaning to the development of my understanding and experience of the Catholic faith.
Through them I had my own 'RCIA programme', albeit extensive, mostly life-based and personal. This underscores the importance of the roles of parents in the development and passing on of the faith to their children, something which is sorely lacking nowadays.
Due to them I was constantly within the perimeters of the faith that helped me through the minefield that was my teenage days. When I reached Secondary schooling, my family settled in Malacca and I found myself in a Brothers' school: St. Francis Xavier Institution. My dad is an old boy of the school so I had no problems in enrolling. It was there that I came to know and joined two organisations: Legion of Mary and SFX Church Altar Servers.
Needless to say they became important faith elements that took hold of my teenage years alongside studies, friendships and those years of the `O' and `A' Levels examinations. When I had to continue my tertiary studies in NUS, Singapore, I had no idea what this whole life would lead me into. Why I ended up in Singapore, I can perhaps summarise it in two words: Star Wars.
Enter George Lucas
When the movie first came out in 1976, I was enthralled by the story line and the special effects that gave life to the virtual universe of Rebel Alliance, the evil galactic Empire, Wookies, Jedi Knights, space pirates, droids, star fighters and exotic planets. That was my first initiation into the world of computers and its power to entertain and tell a tale that is only limited by the imagination of the person.
In this case the fertile imagination of the talented director George Lucas gave a whole new meaning of what science fiction movies are all about. When the third installment of the trilogy (The Return of the Jedi) came along, I was hooked! After finishing and passing my `A' Levels examinations, I applied to NUS, which offered me my first choice course in Computer Science. I jumped to it like fish to water, packed my bags and took the next bus down to the Island State.
Eusoff College and Varsity
Having moved down south and away from my familiar grounds and the safety of my family, I found myself getting a taste of the undergraduate life in Singapore of the `80s. During the course of my studies, I had the opportunity to live in a hostel, called Eusoff College (Evans Road) that became my home-away-from-home during those years.
So, what was the life of this undergrad in campus? Studies, exams, well ... that's the lot! Nonetheless. I never allowed education to interfere with my life as I saw it then. So, there were softball, badminton, jogging, block suppers, walks in the Botac (the Botanical Gardens), D&Ds (Dinner and Dance), inter-hostel games, jams and hops. There was never a lack of activities to do then and always so little time!
A Fine Line
During this time I noticed that there was also a very fine line drawn between what one learns and believes in. With faith and religion, this fine line can sometimes be blurred that may end up making the whole person a contradiction to self and to those around him or her. My initiation to Singapore life and what it had to offer then was not done, thankfully, with the absence of my Catholic upbringing. It is because of this and the support I got from the various Catholic organisations and activities within campus and also with the small Catholic groups in Eusoff College, that I remain true to myself in spite of the ups and downs of student life in the university.
My main anchor was the Legion of Mary, which kept me sane throughout my varsity years. The small gathering of Catholic students in Eusoff also provided the needed communal support. All in all, looking back at all these, I cannot help but see the very Hand of God gently guiding me through the minefield we, so casually, call life!
Strangely enough, it was during the last few months of my final year in NUS that I began to perceive and experience a strange urge to consult a priest to speak and discuss about the issue of priestly vocation. It is always very difficult to explain in human terms about those spiritual realities that we sometimes would brush off as being nonsensical or a coincidence. Nonetheless I would give an age-old and trusted term to this situation that all who read this would be very familiar with: the Call.
When the Lord Calls
When the Lord Calls, He doesn't seem to care whether you are ready or not. At least that's the idea I got from the various experiences of people and events around me. You could be of any age, colour, status or educational background. Yet the Call goes out to all. However, with any call there is a response.
The measure of such a response is directly proportional to the sensitivity of our openness to the movement of God's Spirit in our lives and how we live that out appropriately in our daily life. Despite the zeal and idealism of the youthful intellect and the pragmatism and realities of the secular world, the Call of God has never been far from those whom He loves.
My first experience of such a call was just after my final exams of my final year in NUS (1988). I remember sitting in the hostel canteen having a conversation with a friend of mine. I can't remember what the topic of the conversation was but in the midst of it all, I suddenly said that I needed to see a priest to talk about the topic of priesthood. There was a short pause in our conversation and then my friend looked quietly at me and said if I were sure about this whole matter. I looked at him squarely in the eye and said that I was.
Well, some days later I went to se the late Father Egan who was my praesidium's (Legion of Mary) Spiritual Director then, and had tea with him in St. Ignatius Church. What transpired there would be, what I call, an exercise in prudence and common sense that helped me to discern fairly at that time what I needed to do. The advice given was to take my time. I was to see where my feelings were taking me.
When I went to see Father Egan, I was already anxious and somewhat disturbed by this strange sense of wanting to talk about this subject. Father Egan wisely told me to see him again if this feeling of mine continued. Meantime I was to remain calm and to continue my usual routine.
Well, I remained calm and kept at it that way for the next five years after my encounter with Father Egan. After that day, I was caught up in a flurry of activities when the exam results were out. I passed and was on the road to graduation and into the working world.
Two months after my graduation and 15 resumes later, I joined Reuters Singapore Pte Ltd, an information and news service provider. It was there where I started a career out of developing software computer troubleshooting. I had to service, together with another colleague, our in-house departments that use computers for their work. So, we dealt with the Accounts department, the Editorial and the Sales.
My baptism-of-fire in my life as a software technician came about when I was assigned to install an upgrade news editing software. But first I had to go to Hong Kong for a briefing and a two-week training stint. When I arrived there, I ran smack into the middle of their typhoon season. I thought what a great way to begin a project! When I got back, I promptly installed the software into the Editorial system.
The next day the entire system crashed...
There were a lot of lessons to be learned that day. I learnt that I wasn't immune to failure. Fortunately, an experienced engineer familiar with the Editorial system helped me to rectify the situation.
The rest of my years in Reuters were informative as well as formative. I learned how to deal with customers, project deadlines and the pervading stress that makes you want to hit out at something.
On a Shoestring
I handled my stress rather well by talking, often, to my computer terminal. I also vented my frustrations by letting my creative side rake over by setting up a newsletter team called the Shoe Chronicles. It was given that name because I started it up on a shoestring budget. The first copy that circulated around the office was done in one week and printed on a dot matrix printer and then photocopied for distribution.
My team was a joy to work with for they were all outrageous and somewhat kooky (like myself) with just a right dose of humour that would look doom in the eyes and laugh out loud. This dubious newsletter would later become professionally done in colour, fully paid for by the company and become its mouthpiece and informational magazine for the staff.
Happily enough, its name still remains as a reminder of its humble roots to its glorious existence today.
In the midst of all this fun and hard working life, I never once thought about my earlier Call. It seemed distant, almost forgotten. I said almost because one day in the middle of 1994 when a colleague of mine invited me to attend a Life in the Spirit Seminar the mysterious invitation from God made its appearance again. The Seminar opened to me a whole new vista of relating to God and in that situation I was confronted with the time immemorial question: "What is life all about?" I began to wonder if my life and what I had achieved so far had any meaning for me. I asked myself if there were something more I should be doing? These questions needed competent and realistic answers. It came to me in an unrealistic form under 10 letters: priesthood. This time round there wasn't any sense of discomfort or anxiety as I pondered over it and I know what response I had to give. Not wanting to let the matter be too easy and I also needed to test the Call, I asked for signs.
Of Signs and Father Joe Tan
People like to associate signs with something extraordinary in order to even begin to say that it is of God. So, the flashier or more fantastic it is, the more certain that God really speaks or calls you. I am more of the pragmatic and logical type. So I asked for seven signs and all had something to do with the ordinary and mundane in life.
One in particular had a personal ring to it as it had to do with my childhood days in Malacca. Well, to cut the long story short, three were shown to me. Two of them my childhood sign and another a symbolic meaning from the Gospel. This happened of all times when I was taking a short vacation in Australia in September 1994. One came out in a billboard, the other was the name of the hotel I was staying in Sydney and the last one in a confessional box while I was waiting to attend the afternoon Mass at a cathedral, also in Sydney. Is God a joker or what?
When I came back I went for my morning Mass at the Church of St. Bernadette. I remember the day very well. It was a Thursday and Father Joseph Tan was the celebrant. Father Joe's short homily that morning was based on a passage where Jesus' enemies were demanding a sign from Him. Father Joe asked us if there was still a need for us this day of age to also demand signs to show us if God loves us. I took that as a wake up call for me to make my decision after all I had been shown and given.
I left the church that morning feeling like an SBS bus just hit me. My response to this all was pretty obvious. I had to discern further and needed a priest for guidance. Father Egan had already passed away just when I needed to seek his advice again. However, I had the providence of Father Hilario to help me discern and over a period of several months of direction and spiritual exercises I was able to make a coherent and convincing `Yes' to God. In that `Yes' I was able to choose decisively the Diocesan priesthood over the Franciscans and the Jesuits.
Citizenship and Our Lady’s help
But I had a problem. I was a Malaysian citizen with Singapore Permanent Resident status. I wasn't sure if I wanted to go back to Malaysia and do my priesthood studies there. But I was more inclined to remain in Singapore to pursue this matter of the heart. The solution to all this was simple---I needed to change my citizenship. I had already made up my mind to enter the Seminary in the next academic year of March 1995. It was now October 1994. So short a time and I was getting rather anxious.
My parents had already given their blessings and the whole family was supportive of my decision. Nonetheless, I was still in a frustrating Twilight Zone position. I had already made an appointment with the Immigration Department and they, after perusing all my documents, asked me to see them again in February 1995 for another interview. That didn't give me much time and there was no guarantee that they would grant me the citizenship. I remember after that I went to Novena Church and petitioned Our Lady for her help. I told her that if it were in the Will of God that I remain in Singapore, grant me the citizenship.
A few days after that, something made me call up the Immigration Department again one morning at work. I did and asked if it were possible to bring my interview forward to January. I thought that would be just enough to settle things and besides I didn't want to give the impression that I was desperate. The lady on the other line went to check for a while. While waiting I felt those minutes passed by like it was eternity. When she came back on the line she said that if I wanted to, I could come down in the afternoon as there was a vacant slot because the previous candidate had cancelled his interview.
I saw my boss, mumbled something about life and death and asked for a few hours off for the afternoon. I went for the interview and was granted the citizenship. The rest were more or less, further administrative legwork and form-filling as I had to give back my Malaysian citizenship and passport to the Malaysian High Commission before I could receive my Singaporean citizenship. That took about two months or so and by mid-January I was already a full-fledged Singaporean.
The way was now open for me to pursue the Will of God in the life of the priesthood that called for many sacrifices. It was a decision that was made in the crucible of life, in the midst of the marketplace where all kinds of possibilities were present. In the strong call of the world for wealth, power and domination, I chose a lesser path but not necessarily an easier one. The call of the basin and the towel won the day because in the end the Word of God will always prevail.
So I entered the seminary. Here the future priests of Singapore and all those who are seeking entry into the priesthood are formed intellectually, spiritually, pastorally and also in human aspects. Such are the general demands and sacrifices that would be expected of a seminarian. To the ordinary person-in-the street who are not familiar with the life in the seminary, seminarians seem to exude an immediate aura of holiness and confidence akin to that of St. Paul conquering the world with the Word of God.
Well, I sincerely wish that were true but the real life of any seminarian answering and discerning his Call within the walls and compound of the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary is not all a bed of roses. Mine in particular had seen its fair share of joys and disappointments, the good and the bad, ugly and beautiful moments. In short, it had been an interesting yet sometimes a gut-wrenching roller-coaster ride in carrying the cross of life.
Seven years of stay in the seminary would not be the same without the necessary studies in the various disciplines of philosophy and theology. All the necessary subjects that the seminarian takes up bring him closer to the object and source of the priesthood---the Kingdom of God. As he allows himself to be formed through the studies, he would be able to grasp the mind of the Church and see the bigger picture of Mark 16:15---"Go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to the whole creation."
Seven years of studies may seem a lot to handle. However, even when one finishes the course, one realises that one has only scratched the surface. There are many more to cover and specialise in, so much so that we speak also of ongoing formation, even when one has already become a priest.
This is an important aspect of a seminarian's life. It is the lifeline of all his activities, personal or communal. All priests are what we call "men of prayer". Seminarians are formed to inculcate within themselves the discipline of a consistent and steady prayer life. If we forget or neglect this area the echoes of John 15:5---apart from Me you can do nothing---would remind us not to stray too far off. To help seminarians build up their prayer life, seminarians have a full array of annual retreats, recollections, holy hours, rosary devotions, personal prayer times, meditation and, of course, daily Eucharistic Celebrations.
Certainly these activities are not magic bullets that will change seminarians into holy priests overnight but they do offer the necessary opportunities and paths to the seminarians' further discernment of his vocation. My experiences through these spiritual exercises and my own personal prayer times have shown me a sense of the sacred and the Presence of God working actively in our midst.
In these troubled times, I can't help feeling that the world would be a much better place if all the people, regardless of religion and race, would just sit down on their respective "prayer mats" and pray to the God whom they believe in.
We got to experience something of what a priest would undergo through our pastoral activities. Each seminarian who has reached his theology cycle would be attached to a parish on Sundays. In the parish he would be put through the paces with the help of the Parish Priest or whichever priest assigned to look after the seminarian. The seminarian would get his first hand experience on what running and being in a parish is all about. Those seminarians who are in their Philosophy cycle will be experiencing what is known as `compassionate work'. They will be sent to help out at an old age home during the weekends.
Whether one is attending to an old folk in helping him to eat his food or conducting an RCIA session in a church function room, the understanding and effect in all this is the same---that of service. "...the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve ..." in Matthew 20:28 would be a fitting reminder in all this. In my seven years as a seminarian, I had served in four Homes (Payoh Lai, Cheshire, St. Joseph and Missionaries of Charity) and 4 parishes (Star of the Sea, OLPS, Holy Cross and St. Anne's).
All of these places have taught me valuable lessons of interacting with people from all walks of life and sharing in their hopes, aspirations, disappointments, dreams and vision that it is always difficult not to be a little `too attached' to them and the environment. Nonetheless. I have to move on once my duty and assignment is over. There will always be new people to encounter, new settings and situations to experience.
This is perhaps one of the most complicated and challenging formation aspects amongst the rest of the others. Here the seminarian is to ask himself how well he relates with others, regardless of age, sex, race or religion. He is to be all things to all men (1 Cor 9:22). But before he even does that he has to be able to know himself.
Some amount of discernment in this area is allocated through monthly spiritual direction with an appointed Spiritual Director.
This is very important as it opens up avenues and opportunities for a seminarian to change and develop his whole mindset and attitudes in the area of relationships, both with neighbour and with God.
Some forms of recreation that the Seminary allocates do, in a small way, allow the seminarian to direct his skills and energy in a healthy way that also promotes community bonding. There are weekly community games, such as basketball, volleyball and softball, just to name a few.
For those who are inclined in having the wind on their faces and sweating it out, there is jogging, cycling and the gym. The seminary's pool also sees its fair share of usage. The squash court is for those who fancy running around chasing and smacking a small rubber ball against the wall.
Through the various experiences that he comes across through his pastoral work using the knowledge gained from his intellectual studies and enhanced with a strong and consistent prayer life, the seminarian's human development would begin to be transformed to a priest that is "...after the Heart of God" (Jer 3:15).
When he allows the Holy Spirit to be part of the vocation path he is in, he would be generally assured of a more wholesome and holistic journey that opens up his horizons to the greater plan of God.
Long and Short of It
All the above is not direct passport for a seminarian to become a good and holy priest that we all desire and want to see in the Church. We know that in reality, things can be pretty muddled and blurred as trials and many forms of temptations come in.
There were the occasional disagreements and fraternal corrections. We had our monthly community meetings to iron these out. These meetings allowed us to air our ideas, views or complaints that we had, so that they could be looked into. Certainly, there is no surefire way to form any seminarian. Only the seminarian himself would be the sole proprietor of his destiny. The closer he comes to God and His Will, the better he is on the path to fulfilling his vocation that he is called to. He does this by concretely listening to the directions given by the formators of the seminary and following through in his life and deeds in and outside of the seminary.
Well, I have come a full circle with my vocation life story. It has been one interesting ride and perhaps you may have taken a point or two of what I have just shared here.
For those who are contemplating joining the priesthood or the religious, do not be afraid. Spend some time with someone who can direct you properly in discerning your life. When the time comes to make the decision, should the answer be an affirmative one, take the plunge---the leap of faith. I have never regretted nor looked back since. The world is ready for the Lord of the harvest. Are you one of its chosen labourers? [114-126]
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