The late Fr Robert P. Balhetchet lived the life of a priest to the fullest, but also suffered a lot as he felt misunderstood, unappreciated and unfairly treated, said Archbishop William Goh.
Fr Balhetchet was a “very bright, very intelligent man”, an eloquent preacher and teacher who spoke the King’s English, said Archbishop Goh at the March 19 funeral Mass for the former rector of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd.
The late priest taught in the seminary and many other places, Archbishop Goh noted.
Fr Balhetchet died on March 15 (see obituary below) from pneumonia.
Speaking to the congregation gathered at the Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace, Archbishop Goh said, “If you ask Fr Balhetchet what is the secret of being happy as a priest, he would tell you this: ‘Give your life in service to your brothers and sisters.’ And that was what he did.”
However, the late priest, who was editor of CatholicNews from 2002-2003, “did not have an easy priestly life”.
“He went through a lot of personal suffering because he felt misunderstood, unappreciated, unfairly treated,” said Archbishop Goh.
“That was part of the sufferings that he had to bear,” said the archbishop, adding, “that is not to say that Fr Balhetchet was exonerated for his own imperfections ... The point remains that he had to carry that pain, of resolving that inner struggle within himself as a priest, and it was not easy.”
“Through the sufferings that Fr Balhetchet went through, he was purified,” said Archbishop Goh, who shared that he had journeyed with the late priest for the past three years.
“It has been a great privilege for me because this man who was going through much pain in his life – physically in health and emotionally – this man remained faithful to God, obedient to authority.”
Archbishop Goh said that in the last year of his life, Fr Balhetchet “had let go of many things and he was such a cheerful person”.
In his last days, he was “always humorous” and could still joke even when experiencing physical difficulty, Archbishop Goh recalled. “This is the kind of a man that Fr Balhetchet was”.
The funeral Mass was concelebrated by Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Chia, Archbishops Emeritus Soter Fernandez and Murphy Pakiam of Kuala Lumpur, and more than 30 priests.
Fr Balhetchet was later cremated at Mandai Crematorium.
Sharing with CatholicNews her memories of Fr Balhetchet, Ms Irene Goh, a cathedral staff member who had worked with Fr Balhetchet from 1979-2001, said, “He’s my teacher. He taught me a lot.”
Ms Goh, who wasn’t a Catholic when she started working at the cathedral, remembered asking Fr Balhetchet how does one love Jesus. You “love Jesus through your neighbour,” she recalled him telling her. “Always be kind to people,” he said.
Ms Goh recalled that when beggars came to the Cathedral hoping for financial help, Fr Balhetchet told her that God had “sent” them, “knowing that we will give” them help.
Mr Alex Louis, 62, a weekend cathedral Mass coordinator, who had started out as a warden, recalled his close friendship with the late rector with much fondness.
Fr Balhetchet was a person of great intellect and had a great “ability to communicate”, he said, adding that the intellectual discussions they had were “phenomenal”.
Mr Louis, a lawyer by profession, shared that Fr Balhetchet was also talented in cooking, baking and carpentry. He had even painted the outside of the cathedral using a cherry picker.
Fr Balhetchet: Life and times
Fr Robert P. Balhetchet, a diocesan priest in Singapore passed away on March 15 morning. He was 76.
Fr Balhetchet was born on Aug 19, 1939, as the second of two boys. His family attended the Church of the Holy Family in Katong and were familiar with the parish priest, Fr Rene Ashness. It was to Fr Ashness that the young Robert Balhetchet said, “I want to be like you.”
After completing his O Levels in St Joseph’s Institution, he expressed the same desire again to Fr Ashness who then brought him to speak with the Superior of the Minor Seminary in Punggol.
Fr Balhetchet enrolled in the Minor Seminary in 1954 and was ordained on Jan 26, 1964.
After his ordination, Fr Balhetchet was appointed Assistant Rector of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd. Shortly after, he was sent to Rome to study Vatican II documents on ecclesiology – what it meant to be Church. He was awarded his doctorate at the age of 37 and sent to teach at his alma mater, College General, Penang.
At age 39, Fr Balhetchet was appointed by the late Dr Goh Keng Swee, then Minister for Education and Deputy Prime Minister, to be in charge of preparing the curriculum and teaching materials for a revised national moral education programme.
In 1980, still working on the programme, Being and Becoming, Fr Balhetchet returned to Singapore and served as the Rector of the Cathedral. He was also a member of the planning committee behind the building of the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary in Singapore and chaplain of the Carmelite Convent.
When Pope John Paul II visited Singapore in 1986 at the invitation of then President Mr Wee Kim Wee, Fr Balhetchet was the overall coordinator of the Papal Visit Committee.
Fr Balhetchet celebrated his Sacerdotal Golden Jubilee in 2014 at the Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace. His wake was held at the same parish.
We invite you to pray for him in your Masses and prayers.
Contributed by CHANCERY OF THE ROMAN CATHOLIC ARCHDIOCESE OF SINGAPORE