Newly ordained Father Michael Cheong (left) and Father Noel Campos, together with Archbishop Nicholas Chia, give the final blessing at their ordination Mass. Photo by Henry Seah
SINGAPORE – Some 10 years ago, Michael Cheong and Noel Campos did not imagine they would become priests. Yet on Friday Jan 15, both were ordained Verbum Dei (Latin for “Word of God”) missionary priests at Blessed Sacrament Church.
For the two men, the journey has brought them joy in a most unexpected way.
Michael, 35, who was a student at the National University of Singapore in 1999, had been looking for a Spiritual Director for a Catholic group of friends when he was invited to a Verbum Dei prayer meeting. He agreed to go, thinking that he might meet a suitable Spiritual Director.
“I found they were a very different religious group – very young, very alive,” Michael said, remembering his “first contact” with Verbum Dei. “They were talking about Jesus, shared about Jesus... very crazy, I thought,” he laughed.
47-year-old Noel, on the other hand, first met the Verbum Dei community in 1996 while he was studying law in Southampton University, England. However, it was the second time when he attended a silent retreat with them during Holy Week of 1997 that changed his life. Noel described that retreat as a separation between his life “BC and AC” – before Christ and after Christ.
“The words I used then were ‘I am a lost sheep who’s found a shepherd’, for I came into contact with a living shepherd. My faith was no longer about just going to church – Jesus became alive,” he enthused.
At the retreat, Noel experienced a living dialogue with the Word of God. He said the missionaries “preached the Word of God to us, and we chit-chatted with the Lord Himself”. When the retreat ended, Noel returned to complete his project but he felt a difference within: “Before, I was so stressed. But after the retreat, I felt so alive, so confident.”
Still, both men did not think of becoming priests at the time. They still had very different ideas about how their lives would turn out.
Noel had asked God if he needed to be a priest to follow Him “and the answer was no”.
“It was a relief because then I’ll get to finish my law studies, come back to Singapore, get married, have children... my life did not have to change very much.”
However, during Noel’s final year of law, “it crystallised that I would give my life to the Lord”. He completed his final exams, returned to Singapore for six weeks, and then went to Spain for formation and discernment.
It also took Michael a second encounter with Verbum Dei, during a retreat held in August 1999, to firmly feel God tugging at his heart. He said, “There was a boy sharing at the retreat who said ‘I have found the treasure of my life’. When I heard that, it resounded. I was searching for direction and yes, the treasure is Jesus.”
Michael had a girlfriend then and a desire to get married too. But “there was a calling” to “discover what God wanted of me” at that retreat. He left for the Philippines that December to discern his vocation.
As for their initial desire to get married, both men said they found that their vocation brought them limitless joy.
Said Michael: “At that first retreat, I had already discovered a new happiness though I didn’t know what it was.”
Noel reflected for a moment before he replied: “I was very happy and Jesus was the one making me happy. If I was just helping out wherever I can [with the community], I was already very happy. What more doing it for real? This is something that gives me spousal joy.”
Michael said one of the most memorable moments he still cherishes is “the mystery of the vocation”, witnessing people from different cultures “called at the same time for the same mission” with Verbum Dei, when he first arrived in the Philippines. “I remember that movement, it was very exciting to see how real God is, how He moves everything together.”
As for Noel, who professes to have a quick temper, he laughingly shared that looking back on the last years, “I seem to have been fighting with all of them but in and through it all, the Lord was moulding me. My temper is not totally cool yet but a lot more tampered.”
Both say they have learnt plenty in the time they spent with the community in Philippines before they returned to Singapore for their ordination.
Presently, Michael is studying for his Licentiate which will allow him to teach within the Church, while Noel is in full-time apostolate, a “more typical missionary life”, he said.
A typical day for them begins at about 6.00am, with prayers from 6.30-9.30am. After a meal, they continue with appointments or prepare to preach. Appointments can last up till 11.00pm.
Both were almost lost for words when asked what they did during their free time.
Noel said “free time” was a phrase “they have not used for some time now”, although he added that in Cebu where the community is based, “we love it when we have visitors. Then we bring them to the beach!”
Jokes aside, Noel quoted the Bible as he said, “As Jesus says in John 8, ‘My food is to do the will of God’. The more love we give, the more we experience. That’s what drives us. There are so many days when we’re physically tired but [somehow], we find the energy to go on.”
He continued: “I find myself very much like St. Paul who is not with the apostles but one with them. It gives me confidence that it is the Lord who will guide me and show me what to do next. The spirit is leading, and I just try to be as faithful as I can. This is the beauty of it all.”
As for Michael, the experience of awaiting his ordination has taught him that God is ever-faithful. “He doesn’t change His mind when He wants to entrust you with mission. Christ yesterday, today and tomorrow, is the same. It gives me a sense of security that when God chooses to love you, He never changes.”
Father Michael Cheong and Father Noel Campos will continue to preach, and provide formation in the Philippines.
By Joyce Gan
VERBUM DEI WAS founded in 1963 in Majorca, Spain by Father Jaime Bonet, a diocesan priest. Approved in 1969 as an Institution of Consecrated Life in the Catholic Church, Verbum Dei’s objective is to form apostles of Christ from among people of every state of life, regardless of gender, race and social condition. Its specific contribution to the Church is guiding and directing retreats and recollections, and initiating people in a life of prayer with the Word of God and by building up Christian communities of disciples so that they, too, can be evangelisers to proclaim the Word of God.
Verbum Dei comprises female and male missionaries, as well as missionary couples with a commitment of total availability to mission at service of the Church.
Its missionaries first arrived in Singapore on Sep 12, 1997, to set up the first foundation in Southeast Asia.