Twenty years ago, Clement worked to acquire riches of the world.

Now, called by God, he works to attain riches in His vineyard. Singapore’s first permanent deacon shares with Darren Boon

how he was ‘Headhunted’ by the Holy Spirit

Photos provided by Deacon Clement Chen

DEACON CLEMENT CHEN believes in “paying it forward”, rather than paying God back, so he chooses to share God’s love for him through service to others.

But it wasn’t always so for the former financial consultant.

Clement was born and raised by staunch Catholic parents. He attended St. Gabriel’s Primary and Secondary Schools, served as an altar boy in Church of St. Francis Xavier, and participated in the Legion of Mary in secondary school. But priesthood was far from his mind.

“My only goal at one point of time was to make as much money as I could,” said the 58-year-old frankly as he burst out into laughter.

Neither was he actively involved in church during his working days. In fact, he counts himself lucky to actually be in Singapore during the weekends.

“I travelled close to 80 percent of the time... and was pretty much a ‘Sunday Catholic’,” he said.

Clement later retired and migrated to the U.S. in 1996, together with his wife, to accompany their two children for their studies.

A second calling
Living in a foreign land, Clement and his wife decided to get acquainted with the locals through church participation. Clement began attending weekday Mass at St. Monica’s, a parish in Moraga, California, before getting involved in various parish ministries. You could say he is now intimately familiar with the workings of a parish.

He has served as sacristan, acolyte, extraordinary minister of Holy Communion, lector, and RCIA director. He has also served on both the parish pastoral and financial councils, and helped chair a capital campaign to build a parish education and activity centre.

“I ended up being the ‘jaga pintu’,” Deacon Clement recalled, “I was given the keys of the church so that I can open the church doors.”

Jack Jordan, then the parish deacon, noticed Clement’s involvement and encouraged him to join the permanent diaconate programme.

After praying about it, and with the support of his wife, Clement joined the Oakland diocese’s diaconate programme.

The seven-and-a-half-year programme had a high attrition rate, beginning with 168 candidates, but ended with only 17 deacons ordained.

It started with a three-year course for lay ministers at the School of Pastoral Ministry, followed by a nine-month enquiry and discernment phase, which led to his acceptance as Aspirant in the nine-month formation programme.

The final stage of the candidacy was a three-year programme which included a nine-month long attachment to the Maryknoll Fathers for mission work in Cambodia and Thailand. He was also attached to another parish for a year.

Clement counted himself lucky to have been retired and able to concentrate fully on his studies. Most of his classmates were working and had to balance their studies, work, and family life. They had to meet on two weekday evenings from 6.00-10.00pm and on weekends for lessons. Thus, Clement has “utmost respect” for those who managed to juggle their commitments.

Subjects covered in the permanent diaconate programme include Scripture, Church History, Philosophy, Theology, Liturgy, and Canon Law.

“I used to dread the examinations,” confessed Clement, explaining that his memory retention had deteriorated with age. However, he is grateful for having had to memorise Church teachings because now “we know where to look for information if we need to express an opinion”.

Saying goodbyes to classmates was difficult for Clement. Some were asked by the formators to leave based on either their exam results, the reflection paper, or the interview.

“The formators don’t have to explain.... Sometimes there will come up to you say ‘Sorry, we don’t feel you’re deacon material’,” Deacon Clement said.

Six weeks before ordination, the candidates attended a 12-day retreat. Clement recounted. “We prayed a lot and kept asking God if this was what He wanted in our lives.”

“I used to think that I’m unworthy of this Sacrament [of Holy Orders], but our lecturers, which included priests, said none of us are worthy, so [we] have to go with what the Spirit ... was telling [us] to do,” Clement said.

The hardest part of the decision was the realisation that this was what he was being called to do with the rest of his life.

Clement was ordained a deacon on Nov 1, 2008, for the Diocese of Oakland.

According to the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops website, there are about 13,000 deacons in the U.S. while the 2002 Vatican Yearbook estimates a worldwide number of about 30,000 deacons.

The deacon’s wife

Deacon Clement’s wife, Gladys, told CatholicNews that she wasn’t surprised of her husband’s decision to enter the permanent diaconate programme.

“He had been thinking about it,” she said. “He talked to me about it. Since it’s a calling and he has been guided by the Holy Spirit, I gave him the support.”

Being supportive and understanding are two aspects a deacon’s wife needs to have. Gladys explained that she had to attend classes with Clement, although she did not have to take examinations. She understood her husband’s difficulties in studying, and helped revise his work with him.

“The husband cannot do it alone. The course requires so much discipline and time. The spouse must understand that the man can’t be there to do all the tasks for the family… without his wife’s support, there will be conflict,” she said.

Parish ministry
At end 2009, Deacon Clement relocated back to Singapore. He was excardinated from the Oakland diocese and on Jan 27, was incardinated into the Singapore archdiocese.

He has since been posted to Church of the Holy Family where he will fulfil various liturgical, ministerial and pastoral functions such as infant baptisms, presiding at novena services, preaching at Masses, and interment of ashes. He has also attended meetings with the various representatives of the parish’s Small Christian Communities (SCCs).

Deacon Clement cannot minister the Sacrament of Reconciliation, or anoint the sick as this involves the above Sacrament. Neither can he celebrate the Eucharist.

Holy Family parishioner Francesca Lee said that Deacon Clement’s appointment to the parish would help share the workload of the priests.

“I’ve seen him around in church, preaching at morning Mass, helping out with the novena and Stations of the Cross,” she said. “His homilies are inspiring as he will relate the scripture readings to our daily lives, and he uses good analogies.”

Dominic Quah, who serves in the parish RCIA, said that Deacon Clement “is very keen to see how he can contribute to the catechesis of the catechumens and a greater celebration of the rite. And that is appreciated”.

Looking back, Deacon Clement said: “I think the affirmation came in wanting to be able to serve… to go one step further… to be directly involved in the Church… and to serve it for the rest of your life. That was the thing that kept me going towards the goal.”

“I have no regrets,” he added. “It’s never too late… it’s so important for me to pay it forward what I’ve received.” n

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