Enjoying his ministry to the sick and elderly, sharing the spiritual journey with aspirants and postulants, and being passionate about interreligious relations all stem from Redemptorist Father Jacob Ong’s knack of being a ‘people-person’. Joyce Gan reports
FATHER JACOB ONG’S close interactions and relationships formed with the La Salle Brothers in St. Patrick’s was the first sign of a calling to the priesthood. But while the plan to become a De La Salle Brother did not go through, and the young Jacob had started work, “still, [the thought of] religious life was brewing” in him, he confessed.
One day, while hearing Father Paul Pang preach the life of St. Gerard Majella, Jacob was drawn by the saint’s “prayerfulness and compassion for the poor” to see first-hand the life of the Redemptorists.
It was not his first encounter with them though. When he was younger, he had witnessed their care for his family and neighbours through home missions they had conducted.
This time though, the “tension” between his desire to get married or become a religious led him to seek guidance from the late Redemptorist Father P. J. O’Neill who was about to return to Australia and put him in touch with then Director of Postulants Father Simon Pereira and Community Superior Father Brian Doro.
At 28, “I discovered I did like this way of life”, Father Jacob recounted. From then on, he entered the novitiate, professed his first vows in 1985, made his final profession in 1993 and was ordained a priest on Dec 3, 1993. This year he celebrates 25 years of being a Redemptorist.
The “call to mission in bringing the Good News to the most abandoned poor” particularly attracted him to the Redemptorists, he said.
“When St. Alphonsus started [his ministry], he worked with the poor and saw the need to bring Good News to the most deprived. Priestly ministry as a sacramental ministry became a part of it because people needed the sacraments,” he explained.
St. Alphonsus Liguori found the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer in 1732. The order’s priests and religious brothers are known as Redemptorists.
Father Jacob attributed his Catholicism to his parents whom he said helped deepen his love for the Church through regular family rosaries and prayer time. An important part was seeing his parents’ love for each other and for the Church.
A priest for the people
Before joining the Redemptorists, Jacob worked in Human Resources for eight years. It was an early indication that “I’m a very ‘people person’”, he said.
In his first mission to Sarawak after his ordination, he served in a parish where he visited the community of 10 villages to train Bible teachers, prayer leaders and catechists, and helped set up a computer club to offer young people these skills.
This taught him that “you cannot go with a stereotype of how you think [others] will be. You have to be open, observe and learn from the people, and then respond to their needs”.
“I have never found my mission and work as a priest difficult but challenging,” he replied with a fatherly smile when asked if the work was tough in Sarawak.
After returning to Singapore in 2002, he took a two-year break to review his life and to discern his next ministry.
Meanwhile, he worked at Ang Mo Kio Hospital with diabetics and elderly. He was invited to work in the World Health Organisation where he met medical professionals whom he described as being “very committed to their field and I learnt what it meant to work with so much passion”.
Father Jacob realised that time has “opened up my vision of how people see life in the secular world and how committed to mission each was”. “It made me realise this same thing is asked of me when I return[ed] to my mission as a Redemptorist,” he said.
Father Jacob considers time spent working with the elderly as his most memorable priestly experiences.
“It seems to have taught me a lot about gentleness, patience, how to have a listening ear, care and compassion... besides ministering to them, they minister to me and help me see the need to have a slower pace of life, and not just to rush to work and all,” he reflected.
Besides preaching and celebrating Mass at Novena Church, working with the elderly, joining the 800-strong Divine Mercy devotional group, pastoral counselling, and visiting the sick in hospitals, Father Jacob is also Superior of the Redemptorists House of Formation for Postulants.
This role he assumed last year requires him to see to community needs, minister to postulants, and manage their formation progress.
“Accompanying someone searching for a vocation or direction in life can be tedious but also very fulfilling to see people make choices from within – this comes from a spirituality I work towards” because as a priest, “I see myself providing as best as possible, care and compassion by facilitating the needs of the people I come in contact with”, he shared.
A challenging experience
Perhaps the only time Father Jacob took away from ministry, was when he had to go to court during the ‘Novena exorcism trial’ which spanned two years from 2007–2008.
Madam Amutha Valli Krishnan had taken Novena Church to court, accusing Father Jacob and fellow Redemptorist Father Simon Tan of assault, forced imprisonment and exorcism. She lost the case.
Speaking of that experience now, Father Jacob described it as “very challenging”. The experience “brought me a lot of contemplative time when I could dwell in, in moments of frustration and pain”, Father Jacob shared.
“It was a very difficult and hard experience, where much time and money was spent unnecessarily. At times I felt angry at why they had to do this after approaching us and we merely responded to their needs. It was even more difficult to sit there when so much untruth was being spoken,” he said in a subdued tone.
“At the same time, it was a call to greater ministry of care and compassion for me. After hearing about the difficulties of the other side, I wonder what sort of predicament they must have been in to do this to us,” he added.
This challenge to understanding the other is also part of the call to being Church for it is important to “walk with” more than just the Catholic community alone, he said.
“Our collaboration with non-Catholics is also important and it calls for openness in dialogue and acceptance, and encouragement,” he said. “This is important to show what the Church is about and should be. I personally believe we have a lot to play in how society needs us.”
His passion for interreligious dialogue stems from his ‘kampong days’ when he had neighbours of different races and religions.
“We all went to one another’s houses and had a lot of interaction before any formality and formation of interreligious [groups] came about. That’s always been a thing I hold close to my heart in opening interreligious understanding and openness,” he said.
When Father Jacob isn’t about ministering to his flock, he spends time swimming in public pools, orchid grooming, and cooking.
Being a Peranakan, he has a preference for spicy food, but while he enjoys his food, the ‘people-person’ in him comes up again as he says, “My meals are more for fellowship with people!”
- By Joyce Gan