My Vocation Journey
I’m a cradle Catholic, but my dad was converted on the occasion of marriage. He was from Taiping, Malaysia and came here when they got married. At that time, you had to be baptised in order to marry someone from the Catholic faith. So he was baptised for the sake of the marriage. But he wasn’t really practicing the faith; my mum was the faithful one. When my siblings and I were young – I have an older brother, two older sisters and two younger sisters – she encouraged us to go to catechism classes, weekend masses and all that. She was the pillar of strength for the faith of the family.
We did not pray the rosary very much. I was from a very poor family and my mum had to work in the day and sometimes in the evenings too. She was hired to sew clothes and, at one point, she washed dishes at a restaurant. Although she prayed, she could not organise family prayers. My dad was indifferent so we, their children, were mostly left on our own when it came to praying.
Our family home was near the Church of St Stephen so, as my sisters were growing up, they became close friends with the Canossian Sisters, who had been staying in the convent next to the church. Consequently, they attended Canossa Convent and enjoyed the support and encouragement of the Sisters as far as living out the faith was concerned.
I started thinking about the priesthood during my secondary school days. The Spiritual Director of the Legion of Mary in our parish was Monsignor Joseph Ting, who has since passed on. He was a model of faith and a mentor. In school, we had a young Marist Brother for a teacher, Paul Goh, who is now a Jesuit priest. Then we had Fr Paul Tong, the YCS Spiritual Director at national level, and our parish priest at the Church of St Stephen, Fr Joachim Tang, who was the first local-born diocesan priest in Singapore.
Fr Tang was very affectionate to my family members. He was bearded, big sized and had a loud voice and a lot of children were afraid of him, but not me and my brother. We were in fact very close to him.
I had been mingling with these few priests while I was growing up and they left a deep impression on me. As I got to know them, I started thinking, “Maybe I could be like them, I could be a priest.”
By the time I entered Junior ColIege, I was already seriously thinking about the priesthood. And as I was close to Fr Paul Tong, I confided in him. He became my Spiritual Director from then on.
Two years of Junior College flew by quickly and then it was time to fulfil my National Service duty. At this point, I was considering between joining the seminary immediately after the National Service or enrolling in university. Fr Tong advised that it would be good, in these modern days when people are getting to be highly educated, to also have a university education. He said to me, “You continue your discernment, but a university education will be useful to you now, as well as when you become a priest – it will be helpful for your ministry.”
So I decided to enrol at the National University of Singapore. When it came to the selection of faculty – I was very idealistic when I was a young man – I looked at what could be useful to serve both the priesthood as well as the secular society. I had two things in mind: medicine, which would come in handy if I became a missionary, and another relevant area. Fr Tong suggested that I read sociology, which I felt was a good option so I choose to join the Arts and Social Sciences Faculty to read Social Work and major in Sociology. All this while, I had been seeing Fr Tong for Spiritual Direction, confession and so forth.
Following the completion of my university education, I joined the Seminary in 1984. By that time, Singaporeans had stopped going to the Penang College General for seminary studies. While the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary was being built, we were using the Minor Seminary, which is now the Catholic Spirituality Centre. I lived in the Minor Seminary for two years before we moved to the newly completed Major Seminary in 17th Avenue, Punggol.
My seminary formation was completed in 1990, and following that I was ordained a deacon in 1991 at the Church of the Holy Trinity because the bishop had already decided to assign me to the parish following the ordination.
It was at the parish of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour that I was ordained to the priesthood. Although I grew up as a parishioner of St Stephen’s Church, we shifted to Bedok during my college years and so when I joined the Seminary, I was considered a parishioner of OLPS. That year, 14th April, my ordination day, was the second Sunday of Easter.
Obviously, we tried to avoid the Lenten season for my ordination but Archbishop Yong was quite eager to ordain young men as long as he felt that they were ready to become priests. So I was ordained soon after Easter Sunday.
My first parish assignment was to the Church of the Holy Trinity. Barely two years later, I was transferred to another parish. The reason for this was that Fr Louise Amiotte, who was put in charge of building the Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea, had asked for me. He had arrived in Singapore from China and was eager to start a Mandarin apostolate in the new parish. This community used to go to the church in Sembawang but it had been since been relocated to Yishun. I was, at that time, one of the few priests who were effectively bilingual and so Fr Amiotte needed me to assist him. Thankfully, there are now several priests who could effectively speak English and Chinese and minister to both the Mandarin as well as English-speaking parishioners.
There was a general understanding in the archdiocese that a priest could be sent for further studies four or five years after his ordination. So after being a priest for five years, in 1996, I was sent to Rome to take up a Licentiate in Philosophy because the Church here needed someone to teach Philosophy at the seminary.
On returning from Rome two years later, I toyed with the idea of going to Fujen University in Taiwan for maybe half a year of immersion or to be an overseas student attending a few classes in Chinese Philosophy. Coincidentally, the principal of Fujen was visiting Fr Paul Tong, my SD. They were close friends so I was introduced to him. I mentioned that I had the intention of going to Fujen for a semester of studies.
He said, “What’s the point of coming for one semester? If you want to come, do a proper course.” So I said, “I just came back from my studies in Rome. The bishop will probably not allow me to go.” He said, “Have you asked?” I said, “No.” He said, “Why not?”
So I went to Archbishop Yong; I was totally prepared for him to say “No” and it would have been okay because I was quite eager to get back into ministry. But to my surprise, the Archbishop said, “Okay.” I was kind of shocked. Anyway, since he said “Okay,” I took it as God’s will so I applied to the school and was accepted. I did three years of Doctorate in Philosophy in Fujen University and came back in 2000. In the same year as I was assigned to St Francis Major Seminary as a formator and also to teach Philosophy. In total I stayed in the seminary for 3.5 years as a formator and lecturer.
Following this, I was posted to the Church of St Anne as a parish priest, from 2005 to 2007. Then came the need for someone who could speak Teochew to be the parish priest here at the Church of Our Lady of the Nativity, so I was approached.
I was a bit reluctant to leave the Church of St Anne’s because I was still new to the parish. It was a rebuilt church in a remote part of Singapore but Sengkang, where the parish was located, was a fast developing town and housing estate. I took over the parish from Fr Richards Ambrose, who laid the foundation and renovated the church. The congregation was growing and I thought there was a lot to do. But the Archbishop said they needed someone who could speak Teochew and there were not many diocesan priests who could, so I said, “Okay, I will do that,” and came over in late 2007. I’ve been here since.
In addition to my being a parish priest, I have concurrent responsibilities in the archdiocese. First of all, because of my proficiency in speaking Mandarin, I was made the Spiritual Director of the Commission for the Apostolate of Mandarin-speaking Community after my return from Rome in 1998.
I’m also involved in the Worldwide Marriage Encounter Movement in Singapore. There is always a need for presentors, and both the English-speaking and Mandarin-speaking communities wanted me to present. I made a discernment and thought that it was easier for the English-speaking team to get English-speaking priests to help out. So after presenting for two or three weekends I told them that I had better focus on presenting to the Mandarin-speaking couples.
In the Senate of Priests, we had a system of having the District Representative becoming a Senator so I was a Senator for a number of years, from 2005 to 2014. It was also during these years that I was elected a Senate Secretary.
Ask Fr Siew
How did you know you were being called to the priesthood?
Externally, there were these few priests that I mentioned, who were close to me. Every now and then they would prompt me, “Henry, have you thought about the priesthood?” They did so gently, not in an aggressive or forceful way. And I took their questioning seriously. The internal promptings would come when I read the Bible, especially when it came to passages like, “Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” Verses like this appealed to me, which in a way, was God speaking to me.
I think my mum – she was the sensitive kind – she could sense that I had the inclination but she did not speak up. My father was laisse faire, his philosophy being “as long as you behave yourself”. So in my second year at university, I mentioned to my mum that I was thinking of joining the priesthood. She said, “Well, I knew that,” without me telling her about it at all! She said that she could sense my interest and she was encouraging about it. “I’m happy for you,” she said.
I was born the fourth child and there was really no expectation to help provide for the family. By the time I joined the National Service my older siblings had started working. In fact, my elder sister could qualify for university but because of the family needs she opted to take the polytechnic route so she could start to earn money early and support the family. My brother too went to polytechnic for the same reason. By the time I entered the university, my older brother and sisters were already working and could support the family to some extent. In fact, it was my older sister who paid for my university education. So when they heard that I wanted to be a priest, they were supportive and happy for me.
In addition, during my seminary formation, it was my family who supported me financially. As everyone knows then and now, we did not pay to receive our education from the seminary but neither were we paid, albeit some pocket money.
Ask Fr Siew
As you celebrate your silver jubilee in the priesthood, what do you think is your biggest contribution to the Church in Singapore?
One specific thing that I have done and can continue to do is to deliver a constant reminder to the local Church is that we should not neglect people who are not English speaking. I think, because we were a British colony and our educational system is based on the British system, English has become the primary and predominant language and medium of business and daily life. Due to this, the Church here has also become very English-language dominant Church, to the point that sometimes, we unknowingly and unconsciously think that the Church is an English-speaking Church.
When we see that during Sundays, the English-language masses are full, we conclude that the Church is English-speaking, most people are English-speaking. We forget that actually half of the population of Singapore is not English-speaking. If we go to the coffee shops, we hear people speaking in dialect or Mandarin. But in the Catholic Church, we have that misconception that the Church is English-speaking. Sometimes we hear some priests even say that the Mandarin-language mass has no future, that Singapore is completely English-speaking, though they say this without malice.
The Mandarin mass has no future because we have not evangelised the non-English speaking population. We have not included them in our consciousness, we have not included them in our evangelisation and new evangelisation. We have not expended enough effort to reach out to the non-English speaking. Because of my background, I grew up bilingual so I mix with different groups, so I’m acutely aware that it is not true that our population is only English speaking. It is not true that the Church is only English speaking. But sometimes I find it difficult to convince others because, on the surface, it looks like that is the case and we are already so busy, so where do we get the time to outreach to other groups. But the reality is that there is another 50% of the population whom we have not adequately reached out to. So I think one small contribution that I can do is to just keep reminding people that the Church is made up of not only English-speaking parishioners.
Sometimes I feel misunderstood, I’m being seen as exaggerating the needs of the Mandarin-speaking community. But the reality is I’m not exaggerating, it’s true that there is still a huge population that we are not reaching out to.
Ask Fr Siew
Which words of Jesus sustain you when you are struggling with your faith?
In recent years, it has been the words of St Paul, “I can do all things through Him who strengthens me,” and also “When I’m weak, then I am strong”. This is the spirituality of the earthen vessel, to recognise our own vulnerability, our own weaknesses. At the same time to not be overwhelmed by that vulnerability and weakness, but realise that in my inadequacy God strengthens me. So I do my best knowing I have weaknesses and failures, but God will make up for my lack, in that sense.
The words of Peter, when Jesus asked him three times, “Do you love me?” is another phrase that is significant to me. Periodically, that is the question that I also want to answer. I believe that His love for me and my reciprocal love for Him will sustain me in my ministry.
Ask Fr Siew
How can families be cradles of vocation in this day and age?
Having a sense of God in the family. If the family has created that atmosphere, it is aware that God is important in their life and that God is present in their life. If in their major decisions in life they are consciously discerning God’s purpose and His will for them. And so if there is a calling to the priesthood, they will respond accordingly. But of course if the family is out of touch with God and they are not putting God as a priority then it would be more difficult to respond generously.
Ask Fr Siew
Was there ever a time when you doubted your call to be a priest?
During my discernment period, my spiritual readings presented the priesthood as the nobler calling. So in that sense, it was a higher calling and I felt it was the right choice for me. And since I had made the discernment early I had consciously avoided courtships during my university days. Consequently, during my seminary formation, I did not think much about the vocation of marriage. I did not reflect on it and its meaning much until I got involved in the Marriage Encounter Movement. I grew to appreciate the vocation of marriage and I could no longer say that the vocation of priesthood was more noble than the vocation of marriage. In that sense, they are equally noble and equally pleasing to God. Both are a calling to sharing the life of God and sharing His love with people.
So it was during these days that I occasionally thought, “What if I did not become a priest? What if I also embraced the vocation of marriage? I believe I would have been able to live out the vocation of life and love also but in a different way. But of course, it was no longer an option by then. I was already a priest. And I realised that life is like that. We have different options open to us and once we make a choice, we want to be faithful to our vocation.
So to answer your question, I did not have doubts but had a change in perspective. I gained a more balanced view of my vocation and came to realise the beauty of the other vocations. Although I appreciate my own vocation, I cannot belittle other vocations.
Ask Fr Siew
Was there ever a time when you felt that God was far away or indifferent to your needs?
I did not have such strong feelings, in that sense. In fact, I felt it was the other way around: At times I took Him for granted. He has always been there, He has always been so loving. At certain times in my life I have not been very faithful in my prayer life, I have not been consistent or committed in my ministry, and so forth. So it was more my neglect rather than God’s.
Fortunately, in the priesthood we have a lot of opportunities, such as recollections and retreats where we have the chance to refocus ourselves and to renew ourselves. So while there are moments of lapses, there are many opportunities for reconsiderations, reflections and renewal of vows.
Ask Fr Siew
What are you passionate about as a Man of God?
In the more recent years, I have grown in awareness that God is a Trinitarian God, that God is a God of community. Therefore relationship is important and crucial in our life, be it our relationship with God, be it our relationship with people, be it in forming communities. These relationships can be nurtured and strengthened. I have become more convinced that building community is one of the most important aspects of our pastoral ministry.
All of us need a community definitely. In family life for instance, the family is a community. Even for us in the diocesan priesthood, we are called to have relationships, first of all, if we stay in the same presbytery, then our relationship with our fellow priests in the same presbytery, then the wider parish community, and then our relationship with people as well as how we form them into communities.
When I was at the Parish of the Star of the Sea, Fr Louis Amiotte was very intensely focused on neighbourhood groups. While I was with him, I caught his enthusiasm. Although he was quite elderly at that time, nearly 70, he would hop from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, because sometimes they would have meetings on the same day. There were evenings when three neighbourhoods would be having meetings at the same time, so he would hop from one place to the other, even if he could just stay for 10 minutes, he would make an effort to be there to show his support and concern.
Then in the Archdiocese, in the 1980s and 1990s, we implemented the New Way of Being Church so there was already that emphasis on building community in the archdiocese. I caught some of that spirit through those movements and at the same time, in recent years I became intensely aware that part of forming community is the ability and the willingness to accept one another’s vulnerabilities. One big challenge for many communities, whether in the neighbourhood or parish ministry, when we see the failures and shortcomings of each other – “I don’t like someone, that person is too bossy”, “I get angry with such people and I quit”, “What’s the point of forming community, when we are no different from other groups?” So people get upset and they find fault with one another and they quit.
I have learnt through the years, and this is the key point: If our Catholics are able to learn, to embrace one another’s vulnerabilities, that in spite of your failures, in spite of your weaknesses, I still accept you as my fellow Catholic, I still accept you as a member of the Body of Christ, the Church. Then we are in a position to really form communities.
On reflection, this applies to other communities. For instance in families, it is only when husband and wife accept each other’s differences, weaknesses and feelings and bear with one another, and are willing to work on the relationship and improve and grow the family intimacy, that is when the family becomes strong. But if they are too quick to be defeated by the scandal of failures and weaknesses and sin and give up quite easily, saying “What’s the point?” But if we can learn to accept that then there’s a higher chance that we can brave the storms.
So in my years of building Christian communities, other kinds of communities and ministries, I like to remind myself and members of the community to learn to bear with one another’s weaknesses.
Ask Fr Siew
Which spiritual father or writer has influenced your vocation?
Bishop Fulton Sheen was one of them. He was a famous priest, bishop and spiritual writer. The two books that he wrote, “The Priest is not his Own” and “Earthen Vessel” speak volumes on the life of priests. In Earthen Vessel, he says we are earthen vessels but we are also hold treasure and the treasure is the grace of God and the presence of God.
And then there is Jean Vanier, who formed the L’Arche Community. His experience in that community impressed me. The people who formed L’Arche were not achieving people, not successful people but this is precisely the community where you learn to love and accept and to see strengths in their weaknesses.
There is also St Therese of Lisieux, with her spirituality of simplicity, of doing small things with great love. Her book was one of those I picked up from the library while I was in the seminary. Yeah, I was touched by her simplicity. When she was later on pronounced as a Doctor of the Church, I was reflecting on how a simple nun, who just wrote one or two biographies, could be declared as a Doctor of the Church. What does she have that is worth learning? So I read the autobiography, I think more than once, to reflect on her spirituality. Yes, spirituality was simple yet profound.
Ask Fr Siew
Who among the recent or current popes has influenced the way you minister to people?
I’m blessed that during my lifetime, two of the most outstanding popes in modern history had headed the Church. John Paul II was pope for a very long period, certainly. His emphasis on the spirituality of communion came out very strongly in his writings, his devotion to Mother Mary, his emphasis on dialogue, the way we deal with differences, the way we deal with people whose views are seemingly opposite yours, the best way is to dialogue. He himself had Jewish friends, people of other faiths, and he organised the Prayer for Peace together with people of other religions, and so forth. So yes, Pope John Paul II was one pope who influenced me.
Pope Benedict did not influence me that much, but not because he wasn’t my favourite. In fact when I was studying in Rome he was the Prefect for the Congregation of the Faith. My faculty dean at that time published a few books and the then-Cardinal Ratzinger was invited to be the guest of honour. I saw him, a very gentle and humble man, and very intellectual so his contribution was in the intellectual sphere.
Pastorally, I think Pope Francis is very down to earth. He seems to have a very good sense of the struggles of the common person, so he knows what people with broken families are facing, he knows how the migrants are feeling being driven from place to place, he knows the sufferings of the prisoners, and so on. He was first a parish priest and then an archbishop, who worked with people and so he was very much in touch with the life of the people. So his approach, the way he talks, his homily – I follow them occasionally, is always very very down-to earth, very simple, very pointed. And it gives great directions to life’s complex problems.
Pope Francis’ recent attempt to simplify the process of annulment stemmed from his knowledge of the pains and sufferings that such couples have gone through and he wants to minimise their agony as much as possible. His constant appeal to political and religious authorities to pay attention to the needs and sufferings of the poor, the needy and to not be obsessed with their own power. So he is really an example of the good shepherd.
Ask Fr Siew
What are your strengths and weaknesses as a priest?
Well, sometimes I think too highly of myself. Partly because the lay people put me on a pedestal and all that. I think it is a two-sided thing. At the same time, sometimes they think I’m really so smart, they think I’m always right and so sometimes they don’t take responsibility as they should, as if the priest always has the final say. So we are under the illusion that yes, we are always right, which of course, is not true.
At the same time, I find that the laity in general, are very forgiving towards their priests. If I lost my temper and I shouted at someone, or acted in a way that is unbecoming of a pastor, they would give an excuse, such as, “Father must be very stressed,” although they may know that it was not the real reason. They are willing to accommodate, they are willing to be forgiving. However, this invites me also to be understanding, to be less demanding, less critical of people because I have experienced this form of generosity from them.
|Fr Henry Siew’s Vocation Milestones|
|26 Jan 1960||:||Born the second boy, and the 4th in a family of six children|
|1965 – 1976||:||Attended Maris Stella Primary and Secondary Schools|
|1977 – 1978||:||Attended Catholic Junior College|
|1979 – mid 1981||:||Rendered two-and-a-half years of National Service|
|1981 – 1984||:||Read Social Work and Sociology at the National University of Singapore|
|1984||:||Entered St Francis Xavier Major Seminary|
|Nov 1990||:||Completed Seminary formation|
|25 Jan 1991||:||Diaconate ordination at the Church of the Holy Trinity|
|14 Apr 1991||:||Priestly ordination presided by Archbishop Gregory Yong at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour|
|1991 – 1992||:||Assistant parish priest, Church of the Holy Trinity|
|1993 – 1996||:||Assistant parish priest, Church of Our Lady Star of the Sea|
|1996 – 1998||:||Studied Philosophy in Rome|
|1998 – 2000||:||Studied Philosophy (Doctorate) in Fujen University, Taiwan|
|2000 – 2004||:||Formator and lecturer at St Francis Xavier Major Seminary|
|2004 – 2007||:||Parish priest at the Church of St Anne, Singapore|
|Nov 2007 – present||:||Parish priest at the Church of Our Lady of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary|
|2000 – present||:||Serves as priest presentor in Worldwide Marriage Encounter|
|2000 – present||:||Spiritual Director, Commission for the Apostolate of Mandarin-Speaking Community|
|2005 – present||:||Joined the School Management Board of Catholic High School|
|2005 – 2014||:||Serangoon district representative to the Senate of Priests; also elected as Senate Secretary during these years|
For enquiries on vocations to the diocesan priesthood contact:
Fr Alex Chua
Diocesan Vocation Director
For updates on all diocesan vocation promotion activities in the archdiocese visit www.sfxms.org.sg
Graphics : Christopher Wong
Editor : Mel Diamse-Lee
Managing Editor : Fr Richards Ambrose