His parents and grandmother had taught him how to pray in Teochew from a young age, and his “house had more holy pictures than what you would see in a church”, recalled new Jesuit priest, Fr Matthew Tan.
He also used to watch his grandmother pray the rosary for half an hour while walking to church, said Fr Matthew, 56.
He, together with his youngest brother, Gregory, were ordained at the Church of St Ignatius on July 26.
Fr Matthew studied in Catholic schools – St Gabriel’s Primary and Secondary schools and Catholic Junior College – and was also involved in the Catholic Charismatic group while in the National University of Singapore (NUS).
After completing his university studies, he attended an archdiocesan vocation camp. “I heard stories of how fulfilling and meaningful the lives of priests and Religious were,” he recalled. They had made a deep impression in his life and he “wanted to be a part of their work and perhaps even live their vocation.”
Later, while working as a relief teacher in St Patrick’s School, his mom had sensed his desire to join the LaSalle Brothers, and objected as she could not see how the family could manage financially, as he was the sole breadwinner, his father having retired since his university days.
“I could not abandon my family,” said Fr Matthew, the eldest of four siblings, all boys.
He worked at a local polytechnic for 10 years to support his family. During that time, his spiritual life suffered.
Fr Matthew said he felt “lonely” when he attended Mass and felt that the Church seemed to giving greater attention to married couples than single people.
To fill the void, he immersed himself in work. “I stopped going to church and was getting used to the secular lifestyle,” he said.
“I left the church but God did not leave me.”
Meanwhile, he felt a strong sense of “restlessness”.
“I felt that God was calling me to something deeper,” he shared.
He eventually returned to church. However, coming back “was not easy at all, especially when I had been away for so many years”.
In 2002, Fr Matthew happened to see a Jesuit Discernment Weekend advertisement in CatholicNews.
The word “discernment” made an impact on him, he recalled. Taking a leap of faith, he called Msgr Philip Heng, Fr Heng at that time.
Fr Heng allayed Matthew’s concerns about his age – he was in his early 40s then – and told him that there was a Jesuit novice who was older than him.
Matthew then joined the Jesuits. Part of his training involved being posted to Kluang, in Johor, and Cambodia.
From his experience overseas, he learnt to trust in God and “let go of those I love for God”, he said.
Looking back, he said he believes that there is no such thing as a “late vocation”.
“Everything is in God’s time,” he said.
His advice to those thinking of taking up a priestly or Religious vocation: “Get away from the noise, for only in silence can God’s voice be heard in the depth of your heart.”
Living and working with migrants
“Behind all the wealth you see in Singapore, there’s the other side of the story, the other side of heaven.”
So said Fr Gregory Tan, 43, on what he learnt and experienced during his Jesuit training.
“I worked as a garbage truck collector for six weeks,” he said. “I lived and worked with the migrant workers – the faceless people.
It was very humbling.”
Handling large green bins was not the only thing Fr Gregory did. He also worked as a landscaper as part of his training.
“I lost a lot of weight,” he said, breaking into a smile. He also cleaned and fed male patients at St Joseph’s Home.
Commenting on these experiences, Fr Gregory said, “Initially it was tough but I saw that behind all the wealth you see in Singapore, there’s the other side of the story, the other side of heaven.”
When asked if he was influenced by his eldest brother Matthew’s decision to join the Jesuits, Fr Gregory replied, “Not really”. He said that his strong Catholic upbringing helped him with his decision.
Fr Gregory studied in St Gabriel’s Primary and Secondary schools and was part of the youth group at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.
His brother Matthew also used to take him to Charismatic meetings “which did shape my spirituality”, he said.
Upon entering university, Fr Gregory joined the Charismatic group at NUS.
He thought of joining the Franciscans after national service but decided to “work and experience life first”.
He worked for four years in the civil service. During that time, he took half a year off to do a Masters in Sociology.
He then spent a year-and-a-half in social service. “I wanted to find meaning in life so I took up social work,” he said.
He added that he believes all his work experience has helped him “understand the ups and downs of others in society”.
In the later part of his working life, Fr Gregory attended a five-week church retreat where he recalled a Franciscan friar asking him to ask himself, “What’s the bigger picture in life?”
A few weeks later, he happened to meet Jesuit Fr Colin Tan, who invited him to attend a discernment camp organised by the Jesuits.
He eventually attended the camp with a few friends and it rekindled his longing to become a priest.
“It can be a little daunting as once you become a priest, you’re expected to know everything,” said Fr Gregory, who regards himself as “a relatively private person”.
For those contemplating joining the priesthood, he has this bit of advice: “Take your time to discern.”