God was Calling me to Something More in Life
By Reverend Father Valerian Cheong
Ordained to the priesthood on 7 August 2005
All the passages below are taken from the book “Called & Chosen” published in 2006 by the Serra Club of Singapore. Its website is http://www.serrasingapore.org and the book can be purchased from various Catholic bookshops.
Like most children born into a Catholic family, I was baptised just a little two weeks after birth. My dad was a cradle Catholic, whereas my mum was a staunch Anglican who later converted to Catholicism at marriage. Both my elder brother and I had a very Catholic upbringing and as we resided in the East, we also went to Catholic schools in the area—St. Stephen’s and then to St. Patrick’s. I was baptised at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and was later confirmed at the Church of the Holy family.
A Lukewarm Alter Server
As far as I can recall, my involvement in church was an on-off thing. I started with being an altar server during Primary school. I would serve as and when I liked it, and did not follow the duty roster. I would serve only on Sundays and not on weekdays, even though I was rostered to serve. Thus, when I was in Secondary school, I found excuses to get out of the altar servers. My parents were worried as I would find all kinds of reasons to skip Catechism classes too. Nonetheless, deep within me, my inclination to do something for the church was still there.
During my Secondary school years, I was very active in my extra-curricular activities. Being in the school military band, to me was a blessing as it permitted me to give excuses so as not to serve at Mass. It reached a point when I thought I had better resign from the altar servers. Despite that, I still loved my faith very much.
Catechism classes were minimal during my time as we only had sacramental Catechism classes. This meant that we only had classes in the year we received First Communion and Confirmation; at Primary Two and Primary Five. Thus, for Primary Three, Four and Six, I felt there was no need to go to church—that was the attitude I adopted. Some of my relatives are Protestants such that, I have a bit of Protestant upbringing. So since my parents were worried, they sent me to a Methodist Church for Sunday school and then to the Catholic Church for Mass.
The Challenge that started the Fire
I didn’t know much about the differences between the Catholic and the Protestant faith until I was in Secondary school. One day, a few months before the `O’ Levels examinations, one of my Protestant friends came up to me and challenged my faith which caught me off-guard. I could not answer his questions regarding issues on Mary and the Saints. I was so embarrassed that I began reading up books on these subjects. I gathered some of my Catholic friends and went to see my Parish Priest at the Church of the Holy Family with our questions. Father was excited then as very rarely a youth was so interested in the faith. He advised us to see him again after our `O’ Levels examinations with the intention of starting a youth group. We were happy that finally we had found some mission to do.
After our `O’ Levels, together with a few friends, we met up with Father. I felt I could do something with my little musical background in playing the piano, and having been in the school band, I came up with the idea of starting a youth choir. With this little charisma, I started. Father was pleased that some young people were coming forward to serve the church.
A Sense of Purpose
So I grouped together a few Catholic friends, and we started the youth choir. At that time, I felt that Mass without music and singing could be boring and dry. Although I could not play the organ then, I took the courage and told Father I would try. The first week I played the organ, and after making countless embarrassing mistakes, a priest politely asked me, “Are the pedals too stiff for your legs?” At the age of 15, I could not tell whether it was kindness or sarcasm. Every time I played the organ, the congregation would stare at me. Nevertheless, with so much attention, my organ playing improved!
The choir grew and many people wanted to join us. As I was only 17 years old then, I set the rule that anyone who wanted to join the choir had to be younger than me. Hence I rejected the older people who wanted to join the choir because I feared I couldn’t handle adults at that age. Today, the choir is still an active youth choir, Genesis II, at the Church of the Holy Family.
I was always challenged by my faith so I decided to do something in church. I wanted to go to Catholic Junior College, but was unwilling to travel all the way from Marine Parade to Whitley Road. Thus, I got into Victoria Junior College, a new college near my home, just across the canal. I enjoyed all my walks to school. There were occasions when I was late for school as the saying goes, “the nearer you live, the later you arrive.” The times when I was early for school, I took those as my God-given moments. I was walking literally against the sunrise. Every morning when I walked to school, I prayed and talked to God. As I look back, I realised that my relationship with God had begun from that time.
During my `A’ Levels, I did so many things in my parish that impressed the Parish Priest that he asked me if I had thought of being a priest. My reply was an outright “No”. I was so active in church that I failed my `A’ Levels. I was dumb-founded. It was the first time I failed in my life. I was demoralised that I had to retake my `A’ Levels examinations. Everything was down, moody and sad. Then I decided to withdraw from all church activities and during my morning walks again, I prayed and asked the Lord, “Why? Why another year?”
Manifestation of God’s love for me
Sometime in August that year, I had an answer. My dad met with an accident and he fractured his leg. He was driving down Benjamin Sheares Bridge on a rainy day and he crashed into a tree. He had to be on crutches and I helped him around the house. Then, when the doctor took out the screws from his knees, they diagnosed that he had cancer. At that time, my mother was working. My brother was in National Service (NS), so I felt like a hero taking care of my dad.
I remember kneeling down in front of the crucifix and thanked the Lord for giving me the time to look after my dad. Finally,
I knew why God gave me the extra year. It was to nurse my dad because he was going through chemotherapy which made him sick and nauseous. He could not manage alone in the house. Had I been in NS then, I would not have been able to take care of him. In my realisation of the grace that the Lord had given me, God became very real to me— there is truly a God. In a sense, He was using my life to do something good. It was in such moments that I was building a relationship with God unconsciously.
Just as I was enlisted into NS, my dad passed away. I was 19 then. The times when I had to do overnight duties, feeling bored and moody, I prayed and told God that there must be a reason for me to go through all these. Little did I know that as the years went by, those were my vocation moments. Those were the times when God actually spoke to me though I didn’t think of the priesthood then. I knew I had some kind of inclination, but I did not expressly say I wanted to be a priest. Eventually, I started working. I was young, I just turned 21. I wanted to further my studies but at the same time, was not keen about it.
Maintaining a Relationship with God
However, I was very interested in the hotel industry. Thus, I started working and the management was impressed with my work that they sent me to hotel school and bonded me. I obtained a Diploma in Hotel Management and worked my way up, for about nine years. However, during my working years, I still maintained a relationship with God. Back at my home parish, we had an Adoration Room which was opened 24 hours right through the night. After my midnight or night duty at work, I would take the opportunity to go to the Adoration Room to pray. These moments with God were very special for me; it was just between my God and me. I was alone with God. I had a girlfriend at that time but we ended the relationship when I told her that I was thinking of becoming a priest.
Maybe God was Calling me
After a few years, I was promoted to Sales and Marketing Manager, representing the hotel in overseas trade shows and exhibitions. On one occasion, I had exchanged so many business cards that my pocket was full and bulged out. Later that night, I went to the Adoration Room in church to pray. I took out the business cards and looked at them and I thought to myself, “I have worked so hard – I must have met about 200 people or so that day, but I could not put a face to each name card.” A sense of emptiness came over me… I felt that it would have been more enriching if I were in a position to speak to everyone I met that day about the Catholic faith and mentioned the Name of Jesus.
I started thinking that I had to do something about my faith and about the faith. Then, I began to journey with the religious congregations. In fact, during my junior college days, I used to write to many different religious congregations like the Redemptorists, Jesuits and Franciscans. And, whenever I was at a low moment or did poorly in tests, I would get a response from one of them, somehow. It was so comforting. Maybe God was Calling me. This was how it started – in 1994, I was set to join the Redemptorists. I was going to hand in my letter of resignation. However, the Novice Master then said, “Wait, wait, don’t be rash, come and stay with us, experience life and all first.” I took that as I was not wanted.
Running Away from the Calling
The next day I had a job offer from Shanghai, China. I thought to myself that it’s a communist country with no God, no religion. I accepted the offer and said, “Great! Just go, no need to think about the religious call ever again!” Indeed, that was the reason that brought me to China. Although there were obstacles such as the speaking of Mandarin that stopped me from going, my prospective employer assured me that I only needed to deal with English speaking expatriates. Hence I ended up in the Westin Hotel Shanghai dealing with consul generals and airline representatives. I was happy to go abroad as I did not need to think about my Calling anymore. “Thank God”, I thought! But, little did I know, I ended up in a Shanghai patriotic church and within my second week there, I was already actively involved. I started to play the organ again. By Pentecost, I rounded up an international choir with many different nationalities. I was shocked that the Lord was using me in many areas of my life – even in China.
That Fateful Maundy Thursday in China
What happened next was most striking. My first year there in 1995, the church was not allowed to be opened after 7pm. In the second year, we had to write to the Government for permission to open the church on Maundy Thursday night. We had Adoration and the Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, very much like what we have here in Singapore. However the local people and expatriates were not used to the idea of going to church at night and we were not allowed to talk about God to the people in the streets. So, nobody was there in the church. After a few hours, I realised that there were only two persons—the Sacristan and me. That Maundy Thursday really hit me. It was so strange, there I was with the Lord and no one else was praying except me. It struck me at that moment that I had been running away. I had been running for so many years and so many miles away from home, away from a religious call—a call to the priesthood. I made up my mind. Perhaps, the Lord is Calling me to something more in my life.
I Thought Life was Unfair
I was happy working overseas, getting a lot more allowances, staying in a hotel room by myself with food and laundry all provided. I was blessed materially which I thanked God for. However, what made me uncomfortable was that my subordinates and colleagues who were doing about the same work as I, were paid very much less. I thought life was unfair, something was wrong. The poor guys there had to share a toilet with four families when they got home, and I felt this was not right. I felt God was Calling me to something more in life.
Coming Home—to do God’s Will
This was where my actual journey towards the priesthood started. I began to correspond with my Parish Priest who was new to me. During my first leave back home, I went to see my Parish Priest and said, “Father, I have been thinking of the priesthood.” To my surprise, he told me that he had heard of my name before from the Vocation Team of the Church of the Holy Family who had been praying every week without fail just for priests and for those discerning to be priests. To me, that was the sign that God was Calling me. After that meeting with the Parish Priest, I went back to China and continued to work. Then, something happened that made me feel uncomfortable to work on. I tendered my resignation.
As my clients were from the airlines, I managed to procure a very cheap ticket which allowed me to literally travel round the world. I travelled from China to the United States, from the States to Mexico, and back to the States and thereafter to Europe. All in all, I spent about two months travelling on my own, meeting friends at different parts of the world. In one of those journeys, I went to Lourdes although I did not intend to make any pilgrimage. How I decided to go to Lourdes was a suggestion from somebody who sat beside me in the plane. It was a blessing that I was led to these places. I went to Mexico, to the Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. It was really a privilege; I rounded up my trip and went back to Beijing. After happily travelling around the world, I packed my things and prepared to go home.
How I Broke the News to my family
Whilst I was still in Shanghai, I was hesitant about entering the seminary, so I told my mother I was going to resign from my job. After I resigned, I told her not to call me at that particular telephone number from the following week onwards. She asked why I was resigning and what I was going to do. I said, “What I told you and daddy 10 years ago.” She asked “What is that?” and I said, “When in college I did talk about priesthood, but I never said I wanted to be one!” So she said, “Oh! You are still thinking about it?” I said, “Ya and now I had officially resigned, I was going to do that when I come home.” That was how I broke the news to my family, just through a trunk call. I came back to Singapore and finally said Yes to God. I did speak to the priests who knew me since I was young. I told them that I intended to join some religious congregation but they told me, “From what we know of your character, you seem to be very comfortable with people of all ages instead of being in a religious community.” Later, I entered the seminary and became a Diocesan priest.
Grateful to be One of His Chosen
I was ordained on 7 August 2005 together with Father Damian De Wind at the Church of the Holy Family. I can distinctly remember being overwhelmed (by the Lord’s love for me) to tears during my ordination. At the ordination, the laying on of hands, the kiss of peace, both by priests, moved me. But the most significant moment was when I had to prostrate and submit myself to the Lord during the singing of the Litany, knowing that He has chosen me to be His priest despite my unworthiness.
Upon my ordination, I was assigned to the Church of the Holy Cross and my prayer for the parish is for it to grow as a community of faith believers and to let the warmth of Jesus and the Holy Spirit permeate through to all who come to worship here!
Life being a priest is not easy yet I thank God very much for this grace of my priestly vocation. My dear friends, this journey is not easy. There will be lots of pain and struggles. Hence I humbly ask for your prayers, pray also for all my brother priests, seminarians and others in formation.
“Lord, make me worthy to be Your servant.
Keep me humble and meek so as to glorify Your Name!” [140-147]