Society of Paris Foreign Missions of Paris (MEP) Father Michael Arro has spent 53 out of 55 years of his priestly vocation serving Singapore and Malaysia in various positions and apostolate: as Professor in Theology in the seminaries of Penang and Singapore, member of the Senate of Priests, Superior General of the MEP for Singapore-Malaysia and chaplain to students. He tells Darren Boon that he finds parish work and being amongst the people the most fulfilling
SINGAPORE – At 80 years old, Father Arro is the oldest parish priest in Singapore. But age has not prevented him from continuing to visit members of his flock because he believes that such a gesture lets his parishioners experience the priest as a part of their lives. It also shows them that he is very much interested in who they are and the difficulties they face.
“Parish work gives me direct contact with the people. I like to meet people because people are my family…we are all one family,” said Father Arro, parish priest of St. Teresa. “I like to listen to what’s going on in their lives and eventually to affirm them and confirm them.”
He added: “You don’t go to ask them for any help or for giving you money. You go to their homes just to be with them.”
Life as a missionary
It was during his teenage years that Father Arro felt the stirrings of becoming a missionary priest.
The eldest of three children born to an accounts clerk and housewife in the town of Bordeaux, France, surrounded by vineyards, Michael had studied in a government school and joined the Young Christian Students Movement there. The involvement taught him “to pay attention to others and serve others”.
“And slowly came the idea of a more radical service through priesthood,” he said.
At the age of 18, he joined the MEP so that he could serve people and “bring the Good News of Christ to those who have yet to be touched by it”.
His decision came as a surprise to his parents, as their teenage son had gone to a government school and had not shown “any special sign of being religious” though he was attending Mass.
Still, they gave him their blessings. Father Arro remembers his father telling him that if what the young boy had chosen was something important to him, then he was to do it well.
Looking back on his decision to become a missionary in the East, Father Arro said wistfully that he realised on his first home leave after eight years in service that his decision was a big sacrifice for his parents. Aside from the long separation, “there was no question of phoning to Europe every day back then”, he said.
Father Arro last visited France in 2008. Although it was a pleasant break for him, he realised he was out of touch with developments there. In fact, Singapore has become more of a home for him.
He had arrived here in 1957, after spending six months in England to hone his English. His first posting in Singapore was to the Church of the Holy Family, where he stayed for six to seven months, before being sent to Kuala Lumpur to learn Mandarin.
Upon returning here, he was posted to Church of St. Bernadette, but soon left again for Malaysia to teach at the Penang College (Seminary) where there was a shortage of lecturers.
He returned to serve in Holy Family at the end of 1961 until August 1963 when he returned once again to Penang to teach.
Some of the students he taught back then included Fathers Patrick Goh, John Khoo, Vincent Chee and Paul Goh.
Singapore received Father Arro permanently in 1968 when he became assistant priest at Church of Sacred Heart until 1972 while assuming the role as chaplain for the Young Christian Students Movement.
He was then posted to Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (OLPS) – his longest parish service at 24 years till 1996 – before becoming parish priest of Church of St. Michael and currently Church of St. Teresa.
Respected by his flock
Michelle Chua, a parishioner of St. Teresa, describes Father Arro as caring. She is one of many parishioners to have received him and his team of priests at their homes since he became parish priest.
People from his previous parishes had similarly kind words for the Frenchman. “He has no favourites,” said Lionel de Souza, a parishioner of OLPS, where Father Arro also made frequent visits to the homes of his parishioners.
In particular, Mr de Souza recalls the experience of his wife, Deborah, during her days undergoing the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults (RCIA) at OLPS in 1991. Father Arro was teaching a few sessions on the sacraments and Deborah, who had been baptised as a Protestant, grilled him on why Catholics pray before statues and to Mother Mary.
“He was very patient and she was comfortable with his explanation. He has this love and compassion in his eyes,” Mr de Souza said. He further credited Father Arro for rekindling his faith and for inspiring him to take a liking to the bible when he was an RCIA sponsor.
For Father Arro, RCIA is particularly rewarding. He also likes reaching out to the non-baptised through the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus (CHIJ) Kellock Convent and St. Teresa’s schools, he said.
A “fatherly figure” was how Mr de Souza and Church of St. Teresa parishioner Rosalind Kulasekaran and her husband Anthony, all described Father Arro.
“He is compassionate and a good listener, and does not give long lectures,” Mr de Souza said. “He goes straight to the point, just like a father correcting a child.” Adding that Father Arro “is someone who depicts the love of God”, he said he shared his wife’s sentiment that being in the confessional with Father Arro is “just like being in the presence of Jesus”.
Marriage Encounter (ME) is another ministry that has seen Father Arro’s long involvement. It started when OLPS parishioners asked him to conduct the ME weekends. Although he was initially hesitant, he decided to get involved when he saw how ME transformed the participants such that they became “very enthusiastic about their own lives as a couple”.
In his 30 years in the ME ministry, Father Arro said the life-transforming love that he has witnessed between couples has been a source of inspiration to him as a priest. “It shows me very clearly that what we read in the Gospel about marriage is not an idea about a wish but it takes place really in the life of people.”
Keeping the missionary spirit alive
What’s next for Father Arro? He is looking forward to the day when he can relinquish the administrative and organisational duties to become a “priest-in-residence”. This is so that he can help out “according to his possibilities” – taking into consideration his age, health and language abilities – and the needs of the parish whether in RCIA, funerals, marriages or counselling.
Also, he would like “to be able to age gracefully”, he said.
Essentially, however, what fuels his priestly vocation is a regular prayer life: Through the prayers of the Church, spending personal time and quiet prayer where he will “ask the Lord to show him His way”, and celebrating the Eucharist with the people.
And of course, his motivation continues to come from spending time with friends and parishioners.