You don’t have to be a priest or to join a religious congregation to have a church vocation. The secular institute is another option.

SINGAPORE – Imagine you were baptised in your middle ages or later. Now imagine that God calls you to give yourself totally to Him. Would you be able to join the priesthood or a religious congregation? Chances are slim as most religious congregations have an age limit for entry. Could it be that God is calling you to a different vocation altogether?

This is what Josephine Liow discovered after her baptism at the age of 39. “I felt myself being drawn to spend quiet time with Jesus,” she said. After teaching Art and English in school for 21 years, Ms Liow left her teaching career to find out what God was calling her to.

She travelled to the Holy Land in 1994, joined an intercessory prayer group in the parish of St. Michael, and was mostly involved in retreat work and parish ministries for several years. Still she felt that God was calling her to something more.

For several years, she felt “restless”, and when she revealed this during confession, the priest advised her to go for a retreat to discern the source of this restlessness.

In 2002, during a 30-day retreat at the Seven Fountains Spirituality Centre in Chiang Mai, Thailand, under the spiritual direction of the late Spanish retreat master Jesuit Father Iker Villanueva, Ms Liow finally learned what God was calling her to. She responded positively and now lives out her vocation while working as a secretary.

Another bachelor girl, Ebba Fernandez, 47, had felt the “stirrings” of a vocation within her since her 20s. She didn’t join a religious order because she never felt comfortable about joining one, recalled Ms Fernandez, a cradle Catholic and parishioner of Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

 But the calling to lead a life completely given over to the Lord was so strong that, together with a few others in Singapore, Ms Fernandez joined a pioneering religious congregation. It was not to be, and the experimental community was disbanded after five years.

For four years after, during which she studied in Perth, Australia, and earned a degree in Speech and Hearing Sciences, Ms Fernandez underwent a time of healing. But the call to live a life of singular faithfulness to God remained.

To try to quell her restlessness, Ms Fernandez, now a speech therapist in the National University Hospital, joined a Christian meditation group, and the Sojourners. “There was always a niggling feeling that there was something more for me and, with the help of Canossian Sister Lily Tan, I sought it out,” she shared.

That led her to the Seven Fountains Spirituality Centre. She did a couple of retreats under Father Iker, and then a 30-day retreat to discover exactly what the feeling was. It was here that Ms Fernandez learned about the lay consecrated, a state-of-life vocation hardly known in Singapore, and discovered her vocation.

Father Iker arranged for Ms Fernandez to speak with a Secular Ursuline staying in Bangkok, and when they met and talked, “it fitted perfectly”, said Ms Fernandez. “I was ecstatic when I found out [about this way of life], I was over the moon and I said, ‘That’s it! That’s it!’” she exclaimed as her eyes lit up at the memory.

Ms Liow had also made a  similar discovery.

Thus began their discernment journey in the Company of St. Ursula, a secular institute of consecrated life, and on Mar 9, 2005, Ms Fernandez and Ms Liow made their first vows. They will profess their final vows in January 2010.

Ebba Fernandez (right), who is sister to Father Erbin Fernandez, met Maria Razza, president of the Ursuline federation in Bali last year.Ebba Fernandez (right), who is sister to Father Erbin Fernandez, met Maria Razza, president of the Ursuline federation in Bali last year.

Discovering the call
Women who are drawn to this way of life “love prayer” and “love to spend time with Jesus”, said Ms Fernandez. Indeed, setting aside dedicated prayer time with the Lord daily amidst the busyness of life is a challenge that both Ms Fernandez and Ms Liow face. Ms Fernandez likens it to the discipline needed for spouses to spend time communicating with each other daily.

Secular Ursulines have no superiors to obey, only companions to guide them. Their constitution requires members to live in obedience to the Word of God, to the Magisterium and the laws of the Church, to parents, to state laws and government provided they are not contrary to a well-formed conscience, and to the Holy Spirit.

“It is a call to live where you are, to be the yeast and salt in the environment you are in, to live out those baptismal promises in the fullest way in the place that God plants you,” Ms Liow said.

However, as this way of life is relatively unknown in Singapore, both Ms Fernandez and Ms Liow want to share it with others who, like them, may feel that they are called to a consecrated life but not in religious institutes.

Canon law describes a secular institute as “an institute of consecrated life in which Christ’s faithful, living in the world, strive for the perfection of charity and endeavour to contribute to the sanctification of the world, especially from within” (Can. 710). Members of a secular institute can be lay or clerical.

Like members of religious institutes such as the Good Shepherd Sisters, members of secular institutes profess the three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. The difference is that while religious live in communities and share a common pool of financial assets, each lay consecrated person is financially responsible for herself. Members of secular institutes live alone, with families, or in fraternal groups, in accordance with the constitutions

NOTE:  Ms Fernandez and Ms Liow will share about their way of life at an evening session at CANA, 7.30pm on Jun 4. For more information, call 6336 4815 / 6336 4467 or email This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. Ms Fernandez and Ms Liow’s blog is at

By Daniel Tay

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