By Joyce Gan
THERE WAS LITTLE decision-making involved about serving God, Jesuit Father Gerard Keane recalled. "Some people decide on a professional occupation. Others just know what life is asking of them. I belong to the latter category," he said.
"As far as I can recall I realized all this when I was about nine-years-old though I could not yet articulate it. The ‘Christ thing’ was so compelling that it puzzled me why all boys did not enjoy the same experience."
Eight years later in 1943, he began a 14-year-long training to be a Jesuit and a priest. He was ordained in 1958.
Father Keane arrived in Singapore in 1960. He was on a ship going to Hong Kong when he received a cable to go to Singapore instead. This event was described by Melaka-Johor Diocese’s Bishop Paul Tan as "Hong Kong’s loss and Singapore’s gain".
Church of St. Ignatius was just being established and Father Keane began his work as assistant priest. Along the way, the Irish priest learnt the Hokkien dialect so that he could communicate with parishioners who did not speak English.
While at the parish, Father Keane was actively involved in many ministries including Social and Economic Life in Asia and Catholic Teachers’ Movement.
He is still remembered by many senior Singaporean Catholics for his "star-quality" voice and riveting sermons on the Sunday evening Christian Broadcasts on radio.
Kenneth Anthony Rappa, who produced those programmes, recalled that "of all the preachers, [Father Keane] had such a bond with God in his heart that everything always fell into place without the need for too much planning".
"His programmes were special enough for people to enquire if they had to attend Mass in church having already listened to Father Keane’s sermons," Mr Rappa added. "It was, they said, as if they had been there with us, in church, instead of listening to a studio recording. Those who had difficulty attending Mass were particularly grateful to Father Keane for making them feel part of the community in spirit."
Father Keane was also chaplain at the University of Singapore (now NUS) and, for 22 years, at Catholic Junior College (CJC). CJC still honours Father Keane’s contribution with The Father Gerard Keane Award, presented annually to the student who’s made the "most significant contribution to the continuing development and strengthening of the Catholic spirit in the college".
Principal of CJC Brother Paul Rogers remembers Father Keane as being "ever willing to walk the miles with young people for whom the going was tough at times. And he was the constant presence for any student who wanted a listening ear and a wise mentor. He loved young people and they loved him."
Ivan Yeo from CJC Class of 1997 wrote in the commemorative book prepared for Father Keane’s Golden Jubilee celebrations: "The regular morning Masses with you as our ever faithful chaplain was always a joy. You taught us so much about our Catholic faith, not as a doctrine or law, but as a living faith and relationship with God our Heavenly Father. Your wise and fatherly ways helped me to relate to God as our loving father, and that has remained my vision of God ever since. The faith I developed over the last decade is deeply sharpened by the many discussions I had with you… I learnt far more in the chapel than I could have in the classroom."
Father Keane was editor of the Malayan Catholic News (today’s CatholicNews) from 1969 to 1972. He was a prolific writer – enlightening readers on theological and social issues – and would often invite others whose thinking impressed him, to contribute as well.
He described his editorial vision then as "building a Soldier Apostolate" where he hoped to help influence Catholics to bring their faith "beyond family to society". He said he was motivated by the desire "to make people grow and become more mature in their faith".
However he ran into some obstacles while promoting his vision – caused mostly by the "style and approval" system; the political situation in those years gave rise to a climate of fear of "offending the government". This led Father Keane to "feel very restricted".
When asked why he stopped writing for the newspaper, he candidly responded, "The answer is simple. I was sacked."
But his writing did not stop with the termination of his services at Malayan Catholic News. He continued to write homilies, reflections and articles, between 6.00am and 8.00am every Thursday morning. His writings, illustrated with drawings and photographs, have been compiled into a book titled "Fairy Lights of Faith and
Fancy" to mark his Golden Jubilee.
"I was bullied into having it published," he joked.
Among the articles in the book are scripts for ten Christmas pageants that he wrote for the children of St. Ignatius parish. They are a reflection of the childlike wonder with which he views Christmas, which is his favourite season because "it is full of magic" and peopled by children who are held up as models for our imitation.
Father Keane was afflicted with throat cancer in 2001 and this led to the loss of his voice. He retired from active service in the parish in 2002, but continues to guide the editorial team for the parish’s quarterly publication, "Sharing".
"Losing my voice is not as disastrous as many thought," he confided. "Frustration is its most tormenting consequence. But I keep out of mischief by writing and sitting in on Bible-sharing groups. Sometimes I write homilies which others deliver."
When asked if he had any regrets at being a priest, his reply was typically direct and straight from the heart: "No regrets, just gratitude."This gratitude is clearly seen in "Finding a New Voice", one of his reflections, which he wrote on Nov 24, 2003, after learning that he had lost his voice: "Not only did I begin to realize that my whole life had been governed by my voice – teaching, reaching, lecturing, retreat giving, broadcasting, singing, whistling, joking, counselling, and a host of other voice-produced activities – but more dramatically, that I could not relate ever again to people and situations or work and recreation as I once did… Much has been taken away. But God never takes away without giving more. Unburdened by the demands of normal day labour, I have time to watch the beauty of life and people that was long hidden in a flurry of often vain activity. I became more conscious of what is given to me than what I ever achieved by performance."
(Written with information from commemorative booklet for Father Keane’s jubilee celebrations.)
Fr Gerard Keane's words of wisdom
"When stuck I usually make straight for my New Testament. But there are no teenagers there, I thought. Luke soon told me otherwise when he introduced me to a teenager named Mary. She was a revelation… To me to meet teenagers is to confront mystery. To treat them with reverence and respect. To wonder at young life striving to move into maturity – the destiny for which God created it. One does not have to understand, for we sense more than we can explain and feel more
than we understand. The young like all of us need friendship, love and patience and not posturing on what we grown-ups do not understand."
"So what is it about little children that endows them with qualities that are as essential as they are rare? … I would suggest that it is their realism and trust.
Grown-ups don’t see things as they are. They see things in terms of their usefulness. They invent pseudo realities to escape from the truly real. They live in a world of pretense.
Children see things as they are, wonder at them and let them be. So they are free, spontaneous and detached. With them, everything is possible, leaving them open to mystery and revelation."
On the Eucharist:
"I am the bread of life." This phrase has been for me one of the most inspiring in life. I met it when I was
very young and it hit me with all the force of an instinctive faith which needed no theological persuasion and no intellectual justifying. It had a lot to do with my becoming a priest because it seemed to persuade me that the truth it contained was more important than any other commodity in life. If I could trade with this truth
and give it to my fellowman, then life would be really worth living.
This appreciation has never changed. To be a priest is, for me, to trade in loveliness – to deal with the loveliness of God’s word, to live in the joy of being one of those whom I am very much one, and finally to relish being one with them and all men in the intimacy of the Eucharist."
"I come from a land of hills – green, soft and welcoming. But at Christmas time those hills take on an added attraction. The whitewashed cottages which dot their hillsides are bright with Christmas candles, large and red and usually secured in a jam jar covered with Christmas paper – lighting in the window sill. It is there to guide Mary and Joseph to find their way. Where are they going? To bring God among us in a stable.
We are not at home in this world no matter how much they try to tell us that reality lies in facing and solving the problems of our day. We are not at home with the complex. We belong in the world of the simplicity of Bethlehem. This is why the Christmas crib is so much our home. All are welcome. Everything seems resolved as we kneel before the stable in silent and tranquil unquestioning. All are welcome. All are at home – at home in the one spot in life and history that makes us feel we belong. And this is Christmas – simple, uncomplicated, friendly and homely."