"HE WAS A fatherly character, always caring and mindful of his parishioners. He was a foreigner, yet he spoke fluent Teochew… I was really amazed and impressed by him… deep in my heart, I cherished a desire to be one day like him," writes Father Peter Koh in his book "Steps on my Missionary Journey".

The "he" whom Father Peter so admired was the late Father Berthold, a French missionary who was then the parish priest at St. Anne’s Church.

This desire to serve God, like Father Berthold, prompted the young Peter to forego a place at the National University of Singapore to study Business Administration, after he had served National Service, for the priesthood.

However, while waiting to join the St. Francis Xavier Seminary at Punggol, the feeling that the diocesan priesthood was not really what he wanted, nagged him.

"It didn’t seem to be what Father Berthold had inspired in me," he recalled.

His calling became clearer during a visit to Father Frans de Ridder in 1987. While leafing through a stack of Missionhurst magazines published by the CICM Scheut Missions, he learnt about missionaries in Africa covering long distances to bring the Word of God and development to the poor. He knew then that this was what he wanted.

CICM Scheut Missions is an international religious institute whose members are sent to a nation and a culture different from their own to spread the Gospel, promote missionary awareness and foster missionary vocations.

Peter‘s missionary journey to be a CICM missionary priest began by accompanying Father Frans on regular visits to the chronic sick. Peter was anxious to get going on mission work in Africa or South America. But "I was constantly reminded that a missionary is, first of all, a man of prayer," he said. "Without prayer, I could end up blowing my own trumpet rather than proclaiming the Good News."

In 1988, he was sent to Taiwan and there he worked at a leprosarium while studying for his novitiate. He then studied philosophy and theology in the Philippines, which he completed in three years. He was ordained a priest in May 1997 at Church of Christ the King.

He went to serve Zambia in 1994 and remained there for 11 years until his transfer to Rome in 2006.

 

The community that he was sent to was quite different from comfortable Singapore. Father Peter was self-conscious of his skin colour when he first arrived in Zambia, but this soon dissipated when the locals welcomed him warmly. He learnt their language.

He assisted the local CICM priests to help villagers, worked in the fields and shantytowns, taught English to the youth and followed up with a school to teach nine- to 15-year-olds reading and arithmetic.

"Our goal was not so much to put up a physical school," Father Peter said. "We would gladly have taught the students under a tree. Our desire was to build people, getting them equipped with the right values and skills. Some may call it idealism. But then what is missionary work without ideals such as these?"

Father Peter shared his Zambian experience with parishioners at Church of the Holy Spirit during a recent trip to Singapore.

Speaking on "Challenges of Mission in Africa", he identified several challenges: tribalism, poverty, HIV/AIDS, orphans, traditional religions and culture, and, surprisingly, trying to cope with the success of the church in Zambia.

In Zambia, one in six adults live with HIV/AIDS, 98,000 people died from the disease in 2005; and there are more than 700,000 AIDS orphans.

"The health system cannot cope with this problem," he said. CICM helps by training people to care for the victims.

Sometimes, local traditions exacerbate this problem. For example, widows are expected to sleep with a male relative of their late husband as an act of sexual cleansing.

Even after becoming Christians, people still fall back on witchcrafts and charms in times of crises, he explained.

But in Zambia, as elsewhere, the church absorbs what is good into its life and worship.

"We sit during the Gospel because in their tradition all sit when the chief speaks," he said.

"In Zambia, there is a lot of dancing. They used to dance for their chief so this was incorporated into liturgy, [except that now], the chief is Jesus Christ. Before, there was a group [specifically tasked] to make offerings to spirits. Now this group makes the offertory to Jesus Christ."

With so many Africans becoming Christians there, Africa is a success story in terms of mission. But this gives rise to the problem of not having enough priests.

At his Zambian parish, Father Peter, who was located in the main centre, had to serve 10 other subcentres. The next main centre (without a priest) was 55 kilometres away.

Usually on Sunday, he would say Mass at three subcentres. This means that seven other subcentres wouldn’t have Mass.

So training people to preside over prayer services and lead the community is important. That’s a challenge even though there are many who want to be priests.

"We have to screen them very carefully because for many it’s a way out of poverty, to leave the country," he explained. "Once they get the education, they leave the priesthood."

With regards to his vocation, he recalled Mother Teresa’s words: "What I do is but a drop in the ocean, but without that drop the ocean will be less."

"So we do our best. I like to think that when you add that little drop in the water, there’s a ripple effect and you just never know the impact," he said.

To illustrate, he told of how he had recently received a letter from someone whom he had helped.

"Do you realize what you’ve done?" the letter asked rhetorically. "You’ve given me an education, a life."

Today, the man has a degree in chemical engineering, a job and a wife and daughter. He helps others.

"I helped him in 1998 and forgot all about it, and now I get a letter like that," Father Peter smiled. "That’s the ripple effect."

Father Peter spent 11 years in Zambia before he was appointed the Treasurer General of CICM in Rome for a term of six years, from Jul 1, 2006. He is the youngest Treasurer General in the history of CICM, and the first non-European holding the office.

When he was asked go to Rome, someone said to him, "After Zambia, where you saw God in the poor, now you are going to Rome, a completely different setting. In Rome, you will see God in the arts."

Father commented: "Indeed, Rome and Italy have beautiful architecture, paintings and sculptures. And the churches are beautiful! However, like many churches in Europe they have less and less people coming for Mass. People come to admire the buildings. And in my farewell Mass in Zambia, in the parish where the people and I had to build a church, I told them, ‘I do not want people to come to our parish to admire our church building. I want people to come to admire our faith!’"

It was not easy to leave Zambia, a country he’d grown to love.

"However I also realized in my years in Zambia that mission is not possible without money...Now... I am called to work in the world of finance, but... in the service of the church and mission.

"So now I am in Rome. But I am not staring at figures and counting numbers! My experience with the people of Zambia helps me see beyond the figures and the numbers that are now part of my work. I see people singing and dancing at Mass. I see the sick being comforted. And I see the Gospel being proclaimed by missionaries everywhere." - By Joyce Gan

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