From kampung boy to Taoist-turned-Catholic and, finally, a priest. Father Timothy Yeo’s faith and vocation story triumphed despite his parents’ initial disapproval of his conversion and after several years of work in the secular world. It just goes to show how nothing is impossible for God, he tells Daniel Tay
YOU CAN CALL him “the ah beng priest” and even point out to his face that his spoken English isn’t great. But call him a “Neocat priest” and you can be sure that Father Timothy Yeo will bristle at the name.
There is no such thing as a priest for the Neocatechumenal Way, the 46-year-old told CatholicNews, referring to the Madrid-based community sometimes associated with him because of its pivotal role in his faith journey.
In fact, he not only speaks with pride of his Singaporean roots, but also shows through actions that his work is right here at home.
The youngest son of a family of seven children, Father Timothy grew up in the Mandai-Woodlands area with a Taoist background.
Photo taken with priests at Father Timothy Yeo’s priestly ordination. Photos provided by Father Timothy Yeo
At heart, he’s still a “kampung boy” – and one who hasn’t forgotten his fruit-peeling finesse. Able to skin papayas, pineapples and oranges quickly and skilfully, he recently won a pomelo-peeling competition at his former parish of the Holy Trinity. All thanks to his days as a young boy helping out in the family’s provision shop at Mandai.
Later in life, he tried his hand at various secular jobs before joining the seminary: Working in the family business of retail and wholesale of electrical appliances, a stint as a salesman of foldable partitions for hotels and schools, and three months as a property agent.
Father Timothy Yeo (right) takes a photo with another Singaporean Father Basil Lek (left) and Kiko Arguello (centre) who, together with Carmen Hernandez initiated the Neocatechumenal Way in 1964. It has now spread to over 100 countries. Its statutes were approved by Pope Benedict XVI on May 11, 2008.
While this Chinese-educated priest can switch effortlessly between English, Mandarin, Chinese dialects and Italian, he concedes that his command of English is not the best. A stumbling block? No way. As he likes to say, “Nothing is impossible to God.” Just look at the way he converted to Catholicism despite his parents’ disapproval. “I became a priest despite my Taoist background”.
The Neocatechumenal Way
Father Timothy’s faith and vocation story began with his introduction to the Neocatechumenal Way in the 1980s.
At the time, three itinerant catechists – Italian priest Father Pippo, Spanish lay man Fernando, and Scottish lay woman Kate – regularly visited Singapore to introduce this form of Christian initiation and Christian community living to parishes here.
During one visit, they conducted talks and a retreat at the parish of St. Francis of Assisi, the second parish to have such a community. (The first was set up in the parish of St. Bernadette in 1977. Today, there are seven such communities in Singapore.)
It was Timothy’s first girlfriend, a Catholic, who asked him to attend the talks, which inspired him to join the community.
Those three itinerant catechists made the biggest impact in his life, said Father Timothy, because “they are messengers and witnesses who come to announce the Good News”.
After a six-year journey with the community, Timothy was baptised in 1988. The following year, he flew to Spain to attend World Youth Day with youths from the Neocatechumenal Way.
Father Timothy remembers that Pope John Paul II, in his homily for the final Mass that year, had “encouraged young people not to be afraid to respond to God’s call” and “to do the will of God”. The pope also made the call to deepen the baptismal vocations to married life, to religious life, and to the priesthood.
The day after, Timothy found himself at a meeting of all the Neocatechumenal communities in the world. There, he responded to a call for vocations.
Upon returning to Singapore, he obtained Archbishop Gregory Yong’s approval to join the seminary.
He spent a total of 10 years in Italy at the Redemptorist Mater Diocesan Seminary in Rome and then a seminary in Macerata.
On Jul 17, 1997, he was ordained a priest at the Church of St. Francis of Assisi.
After his priestly ordination, he served in a parish in Italy for two years and earned his licentiate in Sacramental Theology. “Padre Tim” returned to Singapore in 1999 and became assistant priest at Christ The King (1999-2002) and Holy Trinity (2002-2009). He has been a diocesan priest at Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace since Oct 1.
Make no mistake: Father Timothy is a priest ordained for the Archdiocese of Singapore. And he makes this point three times in the course of the interview.
The Neocatechumenal Way, he said, is not a religious order, like the Jesuits or the Franciscans. Neither is it a personal prelature, like Opus Dei.
Rather, it is a way of Christian initiation and community living after the example of the Holy Family, aiming to help all Catholics to have a deeper communion with Christ.
Since its founding in 1964, the Neocatechumenal Way has had the support of all the popes.
In 1990, Pope John Paul II recognised it as “an itinerary of Catholic formation, valid for modern society and times”.
He’s a Rambo and Bocelli fan
Father Timothy describes himself as “down-to-earth”. Raised on Taoist principles including filial piety, he visits his family, including his 80-something parents, whenever he can on his day off.
Another apt description of him would be playful, as shown by the many photographs taken during his overseas trips. In one, he was buried up to his neck in sand.
He likes swimming, jogging and, unsurprisingly, soccer. His years in Italy have made him a fan of Italian football serie A, his favourite team being A.C. Milan.
He also enjoys watching movies. Especially “Rambo”, starring Sylvester Stallone whom he describes as his idol with his oft-said phrase: “Ignore weather, endure pain”.
Music-wise, his favourite singer is Andrea Bocelli, the Italian tenor famous worldwide.
As a priest, Father Timothy seeks to imitate Jesus and St. Paul, to “preach the Good News with [my] life, and not merely with words”. This is also what he finds most challenging as a priest.
He finds great joy in RCIA, prison ministry, visiting the sick, and in helping married couples to “reconcile their differences and patch up their marriage”.
Personally, Father Timothy strives for a joyful and happy priesthood. “We live only once on this earth, so let’s live it to the fullest”.