Fr Luke Fong speaks about his two-year journey with leukemia in a conversation with Mel Diamse-Lee.
CN: Nothing prepares us enough for
Fr Luke Fong with his stem cell donor, Mr Peter Mui, in Chicago, the United States.Fr Luke Fong with his stem cell donor, Mr Peter Mui, in Chicago, the United States.
the kind of ordeal you went through. What do you think prepared you?
FR LUKE: Seeing the reality that so many people suffer from this kind of bad news is enough reason for one to, I suppose, get ready for the day when you may have to face the same thing. My spiritual director in the seminary [Archbishop Goh now] had always recommended that we do a meditation on death at least once a month as part of our spiritual exercises.

We’ve never actually gone into why we should do it [but] I had an inkling that it was good, it was necessary and various results came from such meditations. The benefits do come later, as I was to find out.

I had been relatively spared a lot of life’s challenges, I guess. So the way I ministered to these people with such illnesses, and who are in some sort of a suffering, came only from a cerebral concept of what they must be going through, and what the Church would say or should say are the politically and religiously correct terminologies, approaches and attitudes to have.

Looking at the way spiritual giants have handled sufferings and all that, you know what to say, you know what not to say.

All that formed a foundation. That must have been God’s plan to prepare me for what’s to come.

When I was given the news in early February 2013, I surprised even myself at my reaction.

CN: What was your reaction? Was there complete acceptance?
FR LUKE: Yes. I was like, “Oh, OK, I got cancer.”

When the doctor told me that it was blood cancer, serious and very aggressive, it was like everything came to that perfect point. And despite the very, very dark horizon in front, there was calm. It’s almost mystical, I think. And I actually thanked God at that point in time. I don’t remember it as a time of mourning, or as a time that I entered into a blank space. I was able to say to myself, ‘It’s OK, you’ve been prepared for this.”

I had priest friends who called me up, who seemed far more anxious and even fearful for me than I was for myself and I had to calm them down. [I said] “It’s OK, it’s OK. It will be good.” It didn’t make sense to say that at that time. Again, it’s got to be God putting me and getting me through that.

CN: As you look back now, do you think it’s a blessing?
FR LUKE: Yes! I’ve always seen this suffering as a blessing. It gave me plenty of time to reflect on my life, on how God loves, and to respect God’s timing for things. There is no best time for one to get ill, but just to respect that that is inside God’s time, not outside of it.

CN: Do you now see yourself ministering to people in a different way?
FR LUKE: I guess I’m more mellow now. I think I make less demands of myself as well as others. I’m still quite OCD [obsessive compulsive disorder], that one doesn’t change but I think I choose my battles. You get tired too easily if you fight every battle. Some battles you just let go, you gain a certain wisdom to choose the correct battles.
CN: There is a cancer support group in this parish. Have you met them?
FR LUKE: I have spoken to some members who need a listening ear, who are probably in the later stages of illness, over the phone. I haven’t visited them personally yet, because I’m still immunity suppressed. So I minister to them on the phone, also emails and I’m constantly remembering specific people in my prayers and in the Masses I celebrate.

There’s a greater awareness now when I do that. I used to tell people, “Yes, I will pray for you,” and I did but I would usually place them at Mary’s mantle or place them in the arms of Jesus as they asked me.

But now I tend to remember them and bring them with me into the Mass and include them in the moments of silence in the Eucharistic Prayer, when we are called to pray for people, and I specifically call them to mind.

In that way, I suppose, it has made me more aware of the need to be in touch with the suffering Body of Christ.

The mystical dimension of the Body of Christ being so big, so wide is made anew for me. I remember being in the plane flying from Washington to Chicago [USA], looking out of the window and seeing all those huge, huge expanse of land.

To think that the world is so big and that my perfect [stem cell] match came from somewhere half a world away. That reality hit me when I was so high up in the air and I saw how huge the world is. And yet God places specific people in your life that you would not even think of connecting from a geographical standpoint. Despite how big the world is, we are connected in our faith, in our love for God.

Clearly, my encounter with Peter [Mui], my stem cell, donor has shown me that God has given me someone who is deeply in love with Him.

CN: Have you ever felt abandoned or had a crisis of faith during your illness?
FR LUKE: I don’t know whether you would call it a crisis, but one time when I was so weak after the transplant, I realised how dangerous it was for me to actually be alone. I fell in the bathroom, was unconscious for quite a while and when I woke up I was lying on the floor in the shower. I had an ache on my right cheek and right shoulder...

The next morning I was aching all over. It was painful to eat from my right side and I found out later on that the fall cracked my wisdom tooth… it had to be removed a few weeks later.

That morning, when I woke up thinking of how weak I was, put me in a self-pity mode. I think that was the only time I was feeling self-pity. Self-pity didn’t come when I lost my hair, when I had to eat baby food, when I had to wear diapers, when I had to use a walker. But it came at that point, I don’t know why.

I snapped myself out of it very easily. I would like to think that great saints were hardly “pity party” people.

CN: So what was it like to be close to death?
FR LUKE: Peaceful. Yes, there were nights when I wondered whether I would wake up the next day but I just slept through it. We must live our Christian lives in the way that we are always ready.

Whether it’s being rammed by a truck, or being drowned in the sea or being electrocuted accidentally, or through an illness, it doesn’t matter. What really matters is that we are ready for death and that we can embrace death in the way that St Francis Assisi himself did. Calling death Sr Death is something remarkable, but I think that must have been the spirituality behind a lot of my confidence.

St Joseph is considered to be the saint for a happy death but I think a lot of people don’t have an expanded notion of what a happy death is.

Happy death is something that allows us to be ready for any kind of death. There is no unfinished business.

CN: Does that mean you said your farewells to your parents, to your friends?
FR LUKE: No, I don’t think I was on death’s bed. Social media has a downside, it can spread rumours, it can exaggerate a situation beyond its reality. And I think that’s what happened to me.

CN: Are you saying that you have made friends with death?
FR LUKE: Yes, but who knows how I will react when the second round comes. Hopefully, I will do it with a certain “Christian class”, a classiness that is distinctively Christian.

CN: And what does that look like?
FR LUKE: With certain calm, with joy. Seeing the gravitas for what it is but at the same time not being overwhelmed by it.

My ideal death would be one where I’m able to face it courageously, like Maximillian Kolbe did, when he was just ready to stand in the place of someone. In that very action, actually you’re readying yourself even better for it. Because in giving of yourself, you are actually loving. As St Peter says, “Love covers a multitude of sins”.

CN: Is this a second chance at life for you?
FR LUKE: I see it as my being given back – me given back to my family, to the community, to the Church, to ministry – because someone has given. We, clearly, are not the ones who drive our own lives. The fact that I’ve been given is because Peter [Mui] gave. There is a cause and effect there.

I’m just filled with gratitude over and over again. Each day I wake up, I’m filled with a sense of gratitude: to God, to Peter. He [Peter] knows how grateful I am, I can never express it in full.

The CatholicNews understands that Fr Luke Fong was hospitalised due to a viral flu on May 19. Prayers for his speedy recovery are encouraged.

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