As the Commission for Apostolate of Mandarin-Speaking (CAMS) celebrates 25 years of service, it has many people to thank for its history, not least of all is Father Paul Tong who initiated and developed the commission to what it is today. But that is not his only achievement in his 51 years here, as Daniel Tay finds out
WHILE CLERGY SEE the value of the vow of obedience they profess, many may still experience some struggle with obeying their superiors. But for Father Paul Tong, following the command of his superior is what brings him most joy, because in doing so, he has discovered God’s plan for him, he said.
Father Tong, 82, who hails from China, tells the story of how God called him to be a priest and brought him here 51 years ago.
Born on Nov 12, 1927, in Shandong, he was baptised with his whole family before his teens. He was educated in a Catholic school run by the Marists, one of whom asked him to consider joining them.
Following the instructions of his parents to speak with a priest first, he was instead convinced to join the priesthood and entered the seminary in Tianjin, completing his studies in Philosophy in Beijing in 1950. He was then selected to further his studies at the Pontifical University Urbaniana in Rome and was ordained a priest there on Dec 20, 1953.
After obtaining his Masters in Theology in 1954, he went to Belgium where he obtained his Masters in Sociology in 1957. He was unable to return to China at that time as the Communist regime prevented people from overseas from entering China.
In retrospect, Father Tong said that he believed that it must have been “God’s plan” that he was away from China when the communist government shut down all the seminaries.
“If I had not been sent to Rome, I may not have been able to keep my vocation as a priest under communist China,” he said reflectively.
Father Tong then requested to be sent to Saigon (present day Ho Chi Minh City), but it was not to be. Instead he was sent to Singapore (where he has come to spend more time than anyone’s else). Though it was not his first choice, he obeyed. Again, on hindsight, Father Tong recognised God’s hand at work when he said, “If I had gone to Vietnam, I am sure I would have been killed by the communists.”
Arrival in Singapore
He arrived in Singapore on Nov 1, 1958. His initial assignments were to assist at Churches of Sts. Peter and Paul, and St. Bernadette. He became the second parish priest of St. Bernadette in 1966 until 1977.
Father Tong, who specialised in Public Opinion and Mass Media, had originally wanted to work in Hai Sing Pao, the Chinese Catholic newspaper, but Archbishop Michel Olcomendy had found him too young for the role. He was disappointed, but still, he obeyed the archbishop. Looking back, Father Tong noted this also as part of “God’s plan” to provide him with pastoral formation and experience through meeting people and ministering to them as parish priest.
His pastoral experience as parish priest helped him to become less serious and more approachable. Jane Tan, one of Hai Sing Pao’s editors, said of Father Tong, “He listens with his heart, and the childlikeness in him always warms others. Even if he sees things differently, Father Tong allows others the time and space to express themselves, creating rooms for interaction.”
In 1977, Archbishop Gregory Yong presented him with a challenge – raise the circulation of the ailing Hai Sing Pao.
The Chinese newspaper was originally published and distributed to overseas Chinese Catholics living not only in Singapore, but in all parts of the world where Chinese Catholics lived without a priest to pastor them, even as far away as Paris, New York, and Sydney.
As these communities of Chinese Catholics received Chinese priests to pastor them, Hai Sing Pao’s distribution range and numbers gradually shrank.
Father Tong leapt at the opportunity and met the challenge head-on. He doubled the circulation of the Chinese newspaper from 2,000 to 4,000, surpassing the expectations of the archbishop, who had considered closing the paper if circulation did not reach at least 3,000.
“The bishop said to me: ‘Father Tong, you are [now] in charge of Hai Sing Pao’,” recalled Father Tong with a satisfied smile on his face.
Today, Hai Sing Pao is a 12-page fortnightly containing eight pages of news from Singapore and four pages from Malaysia, and is distributed in Singapore and Malaysia where parishes have Mandarin Masses. In Singapore there are 19 parishes that have Mandarin Masses.
With the weight of managing both Hai Sing Pao and CAMS on his shoulders, and being in charge of St. Bernadette parish as well, something had to go. He was given a new pastoral assignment in Church of the Sacred Heart, a much smaller parish in the city, where he has since remained till today.
A quiet man by all accounts, Father Tong described himself as a “shy” person whose English is “not so good”. He recounted the time when a Caucasian lady met him after Mass to thank him for his homily, the content of which she said was “very good”, but his English “not so good”. But even if Father Tong does not speak so clearly, his actions speak volumes.
In the 1960s, he started and was chaplain to various lay apostolates such as the Young Christian Students (YCS) movement, Young Christian Workers (YCW) movement, and the Chinese curia of the Legion of Mary. Later, he was Spiritual Director for CAMS since its inception in 1984 till 1998 when Father Henry Siew took over.
Until last year, he was chaplain for the Catholic Bible Association (Mandarin), and was in charge of Carlo Catholic Society till two years ago when he entered semi-retirement.
Patricia Chia, parishioner of Church of Sacred Heart, described Father Tong as “a people’s priest, a caring priest, and a selfless person”.
“Those who know him are all inspired by his untiring missionary zeal and commitment to serve God’s people especially the Mandarin-speaking community. Though he may look stern especially in his early days, he has a warm and kind heart. We truly regard him as our loving father and many of us in fact call him ‘Lao Ba’,” she said.
Now almost 82 years old, Father Tong continues to be a member of the Board of Consultors and the Senate of Priests. He remains as a consultant for Hai Sing Pao.
Although Father Tong had “never dreamt that I would work in Singapore for so many years”, he is “very happy” to have done so. “People here are very good to me, even though my English is not so good,” he said.
Thanking God for his good health, Father Tong enjoys a walk every morning to Dhoby Ghaut MRT station to pick up the newspaper. He spends his free time reading biographies and books about history. He also enjoys visiting old friends and their families.
When asked about his own family, he recounted that for 30 years after leaving China for Rome, he did not receive any news about them. Some time in 1980, after the death of Mao Zedong, the first president of the People’s Republic of China, Father Tong received a letter from his brother.
He returned to China at the first opportunity, but by then, his father had passed away already. “But I got to see my mother who was alive for a few more years,” he said, proudly showing a photo he had taken with his aged mother.
After years of working with young people, particularly in the Chinese YCS, Father Tong has been noted for his concern for young people and their cares. Once, he was invited as a Catholic priest to give talks to a group of secondary level youths at the National Library. Topics included marriage, leadership, and boy-girl relationships.
One session on relationships was reported by the Straits Times and Father Tong subsequently found himself flooded with requests to give talks on the subject. However, his lack of fluency in English restricted him to speaking in Mandarin, so he had to turn down most of the requests.
A nurturer of vocations
Father Tong, in his example of a selfless priest, has also nurtured the vocations of several Singapore priests. These include Father Paul Goh, SJ, who is currently the Director of the Centre for Ignatian Spirituality and Counselling, of whom Father Tong instructed in the Catholic faith and subsequently baptised.
“His priestly life edified me and influenced me to pursue religious and priestly vocation,” Father Goh said. “He really dedicates his priestly life to the evangelisation of Chinese-speaking people and training lay leaders for the Chinese-speaking Catholic organisations. As a priest I continue to look up to him as an excellent model of Catholic pastor and spiritual leader.”
Other priests Father Tong inspired include Father Emmanuel Lim, SJ, currently in charge of the Chinese-speaking department of Vatican Radio; and Father Henry Siew, parish priest of Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary described him as “an understanding and compassionate Father” who is “caring to me, constantly showing his concern for my spiritual and personal welfare”.
Today, Father Tong has this to say to young people: “God loves you. This God is very good and all-powerful, so we do not need to be afraid of anything. God gives people different vocations, but we are all called to be perfect, to be holy, which means following the will of God according to our position in life.”
It is in following God’s will that has led Father Tong to find “lasting, not fleeting happiness” in his vocation as a priest for which he is grateful.
Father Paul Tong is a caring, enthusiastic, kind and holy shepherd for the Chinese-speaking lay Catholic apostolic organisations in Singapore. He instructed me in the Catholic faith and baptised me in 1965 when I was studying in the first pre-university year at Catholic High School. He was an excellent chaplain of the YCS (Young Christian Students) group which I joined in 1964. His priestly life edified me and influenced me to pursue religious and priestly vocation. He really dedicates his priestly life to the evangelisation of Chinese-speaking people and training lay leaders for the Chinese-speaking Catholic organisations. As a priest I continue to look up to him as an excellent model of Catholic pastor and spiritual leader.
– Father Paul Goh, SJ
Jesuit Superior and Director of the
Centre for Ignatian Spirituality and Counselling