My Vocation Story
I was born in 1960, to a devout Catholic family of four boys and two girls, myself being the youngest.
I completed both my Primary and Secondary education at Montfort School. In my younger days, I was most active as a boy scout in school and as an altar boy in the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Of course, Nativity was the producer of the most vocations then. The Hougang area was a very strong Catholic enclave. Now, the demographics have changed.
Archbishop William Goh was in the same altar boy group, same parish, same school and in the same kampung as me. We served Mass together.
I started serving as an altar boy when I was 9, and served all the way until I joined the army.
As an altar boy, you grow to understand more about the life of a priest. You have the chance to look at them from close range.
That’s when the desire to lead their kind of life grows stronger. How noble it was; I wanted to be doing this kind of work.
In my teenage years, my eldest brother, the late Fr Lawrence Yeo was ordained. He passed away in 2008 after a battle with prostate cancer. Because of my brother’s vocation, I grew up surrounded by the religious. I mixed a lot with seminarians and priests who always came over to our place to have meals and play games.
When people asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I always responded: ‘I want to be a priest.’
I felt the calling to priesthood during my altar boy days. So I spoke to priests like the late Fr Matthias Tung, the late Fr Alfred Chan, and Monsignor Francis Lau, who all encouraged me greatly. My eldest brother was also very encouraging.
My parents were supportive. Practice makes perfect, I think! They already had one son who became a priest. It was not new to have another one expressing the same desire. We were not a small family – the rest of my siblings have since been married and started families of their own.
With their blessing, I joined College General, the regional seminary situated in Penang in 1981, after my National Service.
At 9, of course I wanted to be a priest. But if you asked that question again in my first, second and third year in the seminary, it will be a different answer. I won’t say ‘oh sure’. Yes, I have the desire, but it’s always questioning, searching as you go along.
My time in the seminary was a discovering process, and at the same time, a purification process. This was because my idea of priesthood started to change.
It was no longer getting to be a big magistrate going around with flowing robes in different colours. It was no longer the external glamour of being placed on a pedestal, with people calling me Fr so-and-so. As a young boy, I was captivated by these kinds of things.
But as I grew older, I started to think about it more seriously. I had to purify my vocation. It became more self-giving; it became an availability for others. Was I ready to do that? I thought about the sacrifices I had to make, be it that of my family, to that of seeing my friends getting married one after another and having children. All this started to get to me and I started asking questions.
Month after month, year after year, it was discerning. Was this a real calling, or was it just wistful thinking and desire? No one can be 100 per cent sure.
Upon joining the seminary, we chose our own spiritual director. The person had to be someone you were able to talk to, be open with, and who could act as a role model. I picked Fr Batholout. The Frenchman was a parish priest and previously, the seminary’s rector. He was widely-known as the ‘priest-maker’. We met once a month. I accumulated my doubts and questions before seeing him.
Fr Batholout was always uplifting. He would always say: ‘Doubts? Normal. If you don’t have doubts, that is abnormal.’ He was humourous and made every serious thing so light. After meeting him, I felt my issues becoming not an issue.
I would describe him as a good groomer with a soft spot for seminarians. He was a very well-loved, hardworking, obedient and self-sacrificing priest, someone I could emulate and look up to.
The priests I met in real life inspired me. But I also read a lot about saints when I was young, so St John Vianney was a role model as well.
Seminary activity can be split into four quarters. The first, studying. The second was community life such as games, mixing around, so on and so forth. Prayer life would have to be the third. The last quarter was pastoral – doing work in the parishes and with youth.
During seminarian training, you could be earmarked for further studies. This was based on your experience during training and seminary grades.
The seminary then shifted to a temporary location at the Catholic Spirituality Centre. St Francis Xavier Major Seminary was being built during that time, and we moved in once it was ready in the mid-1980s.
I spent about seven years in the seminary, which is a long time to deliberate if you are called. That’s why I always ask people who are pondering religious life to just join the seminary. If you are not called, after two, three years, we say run with your tails straight. You’ll disappear. You won’t be able to stand an extra day inside; somehow you won’t make it. And if you are called, the Lord’s grace will be there.
In a way, trying satiates your conscience, instead of having a nagging thought for the rest of your life. There is no harm – it is not like marriage where you can’t try. The answer will not come through just sitting down and deliberating.
Ask Fr. Yeo
What if a young man’s parents would not allow him to join the seminary?
Take a step back and discern, because sometimes God can be speaking through your parents in that situation. I’m not saying it applies to everyone. Be rational about it and find out why your parents said no to you. If you are meeting with opposition all over, maybe it’s part of the discernment process.
After every year in the seminary, we get a break before returning for the next year. In a way, that was a time to deliberate on whether we wanted to continue. But at the end of our 7th year, instead of going on a holiday, myself and five other seminarians headed to Chiang Mai for a month-long silent retreat. This was to allow us to discern and find out whether we wanted to take the final step of ordination.
We were not allowed to talk or watch television, so the retreat was full of time for prayer, reflection and discernment.
Every day, we embarked on three meditations – morning, afternoon and night. The retreat master told us what to mediate on for each session. On certain days, he might add a fourth, that was known as ‘midnight meditation’.
On one particular day, I was asked to do the fourth. I ended my third meditation session at 10pm, so I was supposed to rest before starting on my fourth meditation. But I told God that I would cheat a little and start earlier, instead of going to bed and waking up once again.
After awhile, God spoke to me. It wasn’t a physical voice, but I knew it was the voice of God. It was welling up in me, in my mind and heart.
He asked if I would give up family life for him. Yes, I said. Would I give up a material life for Him? Yes, I said. Would I give up all my anger and hatred? Again, I said yes. What about the friendships that I held so dear? Yes, I told Him.
He asked: ‘Would you give up everything for me?’ ‘Yes God,’ I said. God then said: ‘That’s good. I want you to give up being a priest for me.’
I told Him there was no way I was giving up the priesthood. ‘I don’t want you to be my priest,’ God said. “I want to be your priest,’ I replied. Anger was bubbling inside of me. Why was He telling me this only after I wasted so many years?
So we struggled back and forth, until I was so tired. I told God: ‘I’m packing my bags, I’m going home tomorrow. Take what you want, even the priesthood.’
The voice of God then said: ‘Now James, you are ready to be my priest. Because you are willing to give up something you wanted so much for me.’
I was jumping for joy. I looked at my watch and it was 4am. I was struggling with God for six hours, but it really felt like half an hour. That is the meaning of eternal, there is no time, it was only in God’s time.
I wanted to knock on the doors of the others but everyone was sleeping. The next day, I shared this with my retreat master and he discerned that it was a true experience. God gave me an answer.
Before I started on my meditation, I was trying to do my will instead of God’s. Until I surrendered my will over to God, the answer would not come. Once I was willing to surrender everything, it enabled God to show me his will. We are always blinded by our wills, so we cannot see what the Lord wants us to do.
Eventually, I continued my seminary formation at the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary in Singapore, before being made a deacon on 14th March 1989.
I was ordained a priest on 1st May 1989 by Archbishop Gregory Yong.
My first posting was to the Church of the Risen Christ. I liked every part of being a priest.
I had the ability to reach out to people and make a difference in their lives. It gave me a lot of satisfaction. You can do that as a lay person, but you have fewer opportunities. People are broken, people are confused and they always think, let’s go see Fr so-and so.
I don’t have a favourite sacrament. Mass is something wonderful, because we are able to act in the person of Christ. But it’s something we do in other sacraments as well, such as anointing of the sick and reconciliation.
In 1994, I went to Rome for further studies in Moral Theology. When I came back, I was posted to the Church of the Holy Spirit. At the same time, I was appointed as a lecturer at the seminary – that I hold until today. In addition to duties at the parish, I went to the seminary to teach for two to three times a week.
I liked every part of being a priest. I had the ability to reach out to people and make a difference in their lives. It gave me a lot of satisfaction. You can do that as a lay person, but you have fewer opportunities. People are broken, people are confused and they always think, let’s go see Fr so-and so.
In 1998, I took over Fr Batholout as parish priest at the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM).
On the eve of my operation date, I was giving RCIA and told my group that there will be no class for the next few weeks. They thought I was joking as they didn’t know how serious it was. When they saw me with many tubes in the hospital, they were shocked as I sounded like I just had a headache and needed some Panadol.
Ask Fr. Yeo
Which words from the Gospel sustain you?
‘Do not be afraid.’ The Lord has been very good to me. We are human, so we feel anxiety and stress like any other human being, but the Lord is always there to sustain us. That’s why we always hear this verse. Do not be afraid; you are doing my work, it is my church. It is my ministry, not yours. I am in control, not you. Do not be afraid. Good enough for me.
I slowed down but was still full steam as IHM parish priest until 2005.
I then went to the University of Notre Dame in Australia to pursue my PhD in Philosophy. I came back in 2007, and served as parish priest of St Anne’s Church all the way to 2012.
I was feeling very tired in 2012, so I requested for and was granted a year of medical leave.
It didn’t mean I was sitting around doing nothing – I wrote four books that year.
I was just researching and writing like mad. These were mainly on topics I had expertise in: virtues and ethics, the 10 commandments in the light of family ethics, RCIA, and spirits and demons.
Ask Fr. Yeo
Why spirits and demons?
It’s not a ministry I opted for, but something that the Lord laid upon me. The first case was in the Church of the Risen Christ, where someone was manifesting and parishioners called for help, so I had to do something about it. People are always asking what spirits and demons are, and if the dead can ‘come back’. I had some experience so I thought it was good to share.
All four books have been completely sold out, and I don’t think a reprint is on the cards. People keep asking me for copies though.
In 2013, I took up the posting of Rector at the Catholic Theological Institute of Singapore (CTIS). It is a way of slowing down, as I know I can no longer lecture and run a parish at the same time.
It’s too taxing to teach and run a parish, so I had to pick one for health’s sake. I suffer from bad migraines and recently discovered my ischemic condition – involving a restriction of blood supply to tissues.
There are many things to do here, but the stress is of a different kind. I am able to be more in control of my time. In a parish, people can come knocking on your door at any time. People usually make appointments here. So I am really happy because I know this is just right for my health.
A typical weekday starts from 10am and ends at around 10pm at night. In the day, I prepare lectures, see to staff, attend board meetings, speak to students, and make sure that the library and finances are in order. Lectures are in the evening.
People study at CTIS for many reasons. Some come because they want to be able to answer to their Catholic and non-Christian friends in a more coherent manner. Some come for their own knowledge. Others are catechists, RCIA sponsors or serving a church group, and they want to be better equipped to serve. There are parents too, who they feel like they want to study and help their children in their faith journeys.
I am also director of the Centre of Theological Studies for Faith and Culture Issues and the Catholic Theological Network. I sit on Mount Alvernia Hospital’s board of ethics, and the board of governors for St. Gabriel’s Foundation.
On the weekends, I do fundraising for the institute at churches. I am at different parishes every weekend as they have constantly invited me to preach. I still perform other priestly functions such as solemnising marriages, anointing the sick, doing house blessings and giving spiritual counselling.
I just finished a second round of the inner healing weekend. In 2014, it was full house, and they invited me to conduct it again in 2015. There were 300 to 400 attendees.
I love to paint, play musical instruments and eat. I used to do tai chi, but now I take long walks as a form of relaxation.
Ask Fr Yeo
There has been some recent negative publicity surrounding priests and the religious. What would you say to Catholics who may have started to doubt their priests?
I don’t think good Catholics, or Catholics at large have started to doubt their priests. Of course we can’t condone any kind of abuse, be it sexual, psychological or physical. Most Catholics are rational. They do not equate a handful of bad priests to having a bad church. These individual priests are bad, it has nothing to do with all Catholic priests. They are wavered priests that’s all. I don’t think it has had a great impact on the church, vocations and the overall view of priesthood.
I celebrated my Silver Jubilee in 2014, which marked my 25th year as a priest. It was low key as I didn’t want it to be a big fanfare, with big dinners in fanciful hotels.
It was basically mass at Holy Spirit Church, where 600 to 700 people attended. I got a sense of the numbers and made an order for a lunch buffet for everyone. I only sent invitations to priests but people from various parishes that I served in came, from word of mouth alone. It was meaningful because I ministered to them.
I’m happy that they came to support me, even without formal invitations. It was a day of thanksgiving to God for His mercy, grace, love, support and blessings.
Ask Fr Yeo
What is the biggest obstacle to becoming a priest or religious today?
I think it is materialism and secularism. In the past, life was simpler and we were not as materialistic, so we inclined towards the spiritual. Now life is so good, so people find it harder to give it all up to be a priest. There are many challenges, tears and struggles involved in this vocation that people don’t see. The pain, insult and humiliation from the gossips of people – that’s the other side, and we take both from the hands of God. Jesus said that if you follow me, you will be rewarded 100 times over, but not without persecution. You will be Blessed, but there will also be difficult times. That’s why people just have to not be afraid.
If I didn’t become a priest, I think I would be a teacher. I think I can do that well. Through the years, people have confirmed that this is my forte.
It’s a gift from God.
|Fr James Yeo’s Vocation Journey|
|1960||:||Born to a devout Catholic family of four boys and two girls|
|1967||:||Started school at Montfort Junior School|
|1969||:||Began serving as an Altar Boy at the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary|
|1973||:||Attended Montfort Secondary School|
|1977||:||Started Polytechnic studies|
|1979||:||Joined National Service|
|1981||:||Joined College General, the regional seminary situated in Penang|
|14 March 1989||:||Made Deacon at the Church of Christ the King|
|1 May 1989||:||Ordained to the Priesthood by Archbishop Gregory Yong, posted to the Church of the Risen Christ|
|1994||:||Further studies in Rome majoring in Moral Theology|
|1996||:||Posted to Church of the Holy Spirit, appointed a lecturer at St Francis Xavier Major Seminary|
|1998||:||Parish Priest, Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary|
|2005||:||Went to the University of Notre Dame in Australia to pursue a PhD in Philosophy|
|2007||:||Parish Priest, St Anne’s Church|
|2012||:||Start of a year of medical leave, where he published four books|
|2013||:||Rector of the Catholic Theological Institute of Singapore|
|2014||:||Celebrated Silver Jubilee|