06.jpgCharming, approachable and clean-cut, Father Valerian has the demeanour of a successful hotelier. He was one, and that has helped him as a priest.

FOR VALERIAN CHEONG, life as a hotelier was glamorous - posh surroundings, an overseas posting, an enviable pay packet and allowances, scrumptious meals and laundry services any time he needed them. You would think that he would have revelled in a bright lights, big city kind of life. Not quite. Little did Valerian Cheong know what he was actually being groomed for.

"What I really like about the priesthood is that the diocesan priesthood is a direct reflection of the priesthood of Jesus Christ," says Father Valerian Cheong (right). In this photo, Father Valerian distributes Holy Communion during the Chrism Mass on Apr 5.

As a cradle Catholic, Valerian was exposed to the Catholic way of life - Catholic schools, a stint as an altar boy, youth choir, etc. Even at work, God was never far from his mind. Although he felt called, he was doubtful if God really wanted him to serve full-time.

And, yes, there was the question of a female companion, plus the glamour of the hotel industry… sigh… choices, choices… He thought, "Hey, maybe I should accept the overseas posting and be out of sight, out of mind from God's calling!" It didn't work. He went to Shanghai. God followed him there.

While in Shanghai, he got involved with the Catholic expatriate community and even rounded up members for an international choir. On a Maundy Thursday in 1995, after getting permission from the Chinese government to allow the church to be opened after 7.00pm, he waited eagerly for the congregation for adoration till midnight! But, alas, he ended the night with only the sacristan for company.

But in that empty church he felt God even more. God had been calling him all this while, he realized, and he had been running away. That was the turning point. But, having had a taste of the world, Valerian the hotelier decided on one last "fling". With his international hotel connections, he was able to travel on the cheap around the world. When he came home, he got blessings from his mother and his parish priests and entered the seminary.

Today, he still has his presentable, charming and hospitable nature. He remains very much a people person. His life as a priest parallels his life as a hotelier, he says - must constantly smile; must conduct yourself well; must learn how to tackle irate people; must deal with so many different types of people from all walks of life. It's like playing host all over again, welcoming guests (the congregation) to the hotel (the church).

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What makes him a happy priest today?

"What I really like about the priesthood is that the diocesan priesthood is a direct reflection of the priesthood of Jesus Christ."

Today, he is happy to be available for the people, to be present at the milestones of their spiritual life. The main reason for his call is to be Christ in the midst of the mess in their lives.

He feels there's lots of freedom to do God's work. And he draws his spirituality from the people of God. When he is at prayer, he lifts up to God the problems people have shared with him, and also those persons whom he discerns require that "extra" prayer. What drives him is the ability to draw people to a heightened sense of worship. As a priest, he sees himself as a bridge between God and man. He is God's spokesperson. Getting the people involved with Christ - his ultimate fulfilment - keeps him motivated.

His happy moments also consist of getting together with fellow young priests to exchange stories, and sharing their ups and downs.

Father Val is also thrilled and feels appreciated when people write to him after Sundays to compliment him on his sermons and how they are touched and moved by what he had said. Such responses keep him motivated to do even better the next week. Another exciting part of the priesthood, he tells us, is working with the youths in the university. Their zest and zeal make him happy and keep him young in spirit.

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Memorable experiences

One of his most memorable experiences must have been his "baptism of fire". Merely five days after his ordination, he celebrated two Masses, the sacraments of baptism, reconciliation, confirmation and anointing of the sick.

Not long after, he encountered another interesting incident. He was asked to go to the National University Hospital mortuary to bless the body of someone who had just died (something he doesn't usually do). It was his first visit to the morgue. His imagination ran wild. He couldn't help recalling the horror movies he had seen. There he was, alone in the morgue with the mortician.

The room was cold, the atmosphere, eerie. The mortician slowly pulled out the cold fridge containing the body, unzipped the body bag and … for Father Val, it wasn't a scene in a movie, but a solemn prayer moment. The episode passed quickly although the cold, bluish corpse did freak him for a few seconds.

He has some wise words for those discerning to walk the path: to the priesthood: "When you've made up your mind to answer God's call, never worry about not having material stuff, provisions and money. After all, God provides and pays you a fair wage for a day's work.

"Sometimes, a normal day can be up to 12 to 14 hours, and even longer on occasions," he says. "But you know what? When you love your job, the clock doesn't quite exist for you." Spoken by a true hotelier.

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