Although Father Ambrose Vaz does not belong to any parish, approximately 800 people came to celebrate his Sacerdotal Silver Jubilee at Church of the Risen Christ on Jun 5, a sign of the high esteem held for him by Singapore Catholics.
Father Ambrose Vaz, right, who was ordained on Jun 5, 1981, celebrates his Sacerdotal Silver Jubilee with elder brother Msgr Eugene Vaz, whom the younger brother regards as a "good big brother, an inspiration". Photo by Dominic Wong
MANY OF THOSE who came have encountered him at his very popular Scripture classes held at their parish or at the Singapore Pastoral Institute (SPI), or through his ministries such as Engaged Encounter, CHOICE or Retrovaille.
Father Vaz's dedication to his vocation led Archbishop Nicholas Chia to make him an example of what a fine priest should be and how a good priest should tend to his flock. Praising Father Vaz's humility, Archbishop Chia told the congregation at the Thanksgiving Mass how Father Vaz readily went wherever he was needed, including leaving for Biblical Studies in Catholic University of America, Washington D. C. (and later the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome) and "became a very good biblical scholar for the archdiocese".
The archbishop was aware of how Father Vaz might have enjoyed parish work after his return from the U.S. but the archdiocese "saw the need for his help with the formation of seminarians so we posted him to Rome for further studies". "He is someone who did not look for things to satisfy himself with but he looks for the good of the diocese - a quality all priests should have," he said.
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Father Vaz is currently the Director of the Singapore Archdiocese Biblical Apostolate Team. He lectures on biblical studies at SPI every Monday night and Tuesday morning, and he gives talks on Scripture in parishes where he is invited. Since 2005, he is also a full-time formater and lecturer in Sacred Scripture at the St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary. And still he finds time to respond to requests for help, counselling and spiritual direction.
To this, Archbishop Chia said, "He is not sophisticated," drawing laughter from the congregation at Father Vaz's grin, "but he is very humble. A simple person. All wonderful qualities. These are part of the reflections of Christ." And this is why Father Vaz has become a great influence to many people in various parishes, he added.
The archbishop reminded the priests who had come to join in the celebrations that people from all vocations come to priests because they want to seek God and the "spirituality of a priest is ultimately to reflect God". It is this deep spirituality that enables Father Vaz to communicate effectively about Christ to the many people who have encountered him.
Father Vaz knows the deeper meaning of sacred Scripture that he teaches, the archbishop said, that is the "Word of God is not just a written wordâ€¦ and Father Vaz has shown himself true to his vocation. He gave himself to really be a true disciple and follow God's footsteps". The archbishop concluded by saying that Father Vaz is "really one of the outstanding priests we have in Singapore".
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Father Ambrose Vaz said his source of strength comes from the very community he ministers to. "You people of God, are examples of God's faithfulness and I am touched by so many of you - generally people who are striving to be obedient to God and it reminds me of my own call," he said during his Thanksgiving speech after Mass.
"It makes a difference when the people we minister to, themselves, minister to me. If at all I am praiseworthy, it is because of what you have done for me." "God never allows himself to be outdone in generosity," he said as he pondered how there were many things that he would have wanted to steer differently in his life.
Citing the archbishop's example, Father Vaz laughed about how he had enjoyed parish work and was not keen on studying, only to be chosen to be sent overseas for Scripture studies and Hebrew and Greek, no less!
"I would have written the script [in my life] a different way but coming back, I know if I had insisted on my way, I would not have enjoyed the joys of sharing the Word of God. And there are so many such examples in my years of priesthood. God will always remain faithful," he reiterated and told the congregation this was why he chose "Faithfulness" as a theme for his celebration. "When I was ordained 25 years ago, the excitement I felt was like that of God speaking to Moses through the burning bush - there was an exuberance, challenge and honour to walk in God's footsteps.
After 25 years, the excitement is still the same and indeed, all that I thought would happen, did. The new excitement is that God was with me through that 25 years," Father Vaz reflected.
Looking back, he knows that the journey has not always been easy. But he recognizes that "God never calls us to difficulty if he wasn't going to lead us through it". If anything, Father Vaz shared that the high points of his priesthood were closely associated with challenges - "when God could show his presence working in us and through us," he said.
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He thanked the many people who have made a difference in his life and acknowledged that it was his privilege to have worked with them in the different ministries. After Father Vaz thanked his father, who is 93 this year, he visibly grappled with his emotions. "I miss my mum," he finally said. "But I know she is not missing out on this celebration because I am confident of where she is now, or rather who she is with - the Lord."
He spoke firmly, with conviction, to the nods of many heads. A celebration dinner was held at Fortunate Restaurant across the street from Risen Christ parish after Mass and no less than 75 tables were fully occupied. There was a video footage that chronicled his life, as well as performances and singalongs. Father Vaz's childhood secrets were shared by his family, including elder brother Msgr Eugene Vaz, to the cheers and laughter of all present.
Both brothers credited their faith life to their family's nurture and they took the opportunity to encourage vocations. "Parents here who are touched by the celebration and my brother may encourage young boys to follow their vocation call. There are vocations - they are all in our homes and it's only a matter of nurturing them onwards," said Msgr Eugene Vaz, whom Father Vaz described as a "good big brother, an inspiration who saw me through [the last 25 years]".
Father Ambrose Vaz echoed the same views. "My wish today is that many young men can recognize God calling you. He is not out of reach. Parents, don't look at children as dividends or retirement plans. The best thing you can have, is to have your son as a priest. If your son is called, let him go." Those interested in vocations would feel assured by what he wrote on the priesthood in the commemorative book prepared for his Silver Jubilee: "I did not feel the 'loss' of another way of life as a sacrifice. Even today, I am aware of what I have to 'surrender', but the privilege of serving Him more than makes up for the 'surrender'."