As the parish of the Holy Spirit celebrates its Golden Jubilee this Pentecost, there is one person for whom this milestone is a real homecoming. Joyce Gan reports
FATHER ANDREW WONG, aged 60, is parish priest of the Church of the Holy Spirit. But not so many know that he also grew up in the same parish.
In the past, recalled Father Andrew, most of the activities of Catholic families were largely centred on the parish.
“Back then, Catholic families knew one another. There was a kind of family ‘kampong’ spirit and people were more welcoming,” he said.
He fondly remembers the days when Father Anthony Schotte, CICM was a frequent visitor in his home. The young Andrew was fascinated with the Scheut Missions priest, and observed him with curiosity week after week, gradually nurturing in the young boy a love for helping people.
Father Andrew gratefully recalls when Father Schotte helped the former’s late grandfather, Christopher Wong, who suffered a broken hip. Christopher was a pioneer and active parishioner of the church.
“I’ll never forget how Father Schotte treated my grandfather. Imagine seeing the priest personally carry a sofa chair, and placing it next to the front pew for my grandfather to sit [during Mass],” recalled Father Andrew.
In later years, when Christopher was no longer able to attend Mass in church, Father Schotte would bring him Holy Communion.
“What a wonderful man of God!” exclaimed Father Andrew. “I remember wanting to grow up fast... to be like Father Schotte to serve God’s people.”
And so, the seed for his priestly vocation was sown.
Having seen the parish transcend 50 years, Father Andrew observed, “Now times have changed tremendously and with the world [wired up] as a global village, things just aren’t the same anymore. People no longer work nine-to-five.”
As such, parishioners’ needs have changed. They face more distractions, temptations, and challenges, he explained.
“People now have greater demands made on them. As a priest, I get to meet parishioners from all walks of life, and it’s a real privilege when I’m given a deeper understanding of their struggles, their fears, and their many concerns,” he said. “This is one of the challenges a priest faces! Sometimes, there are just no answers.”
Seeing all these different needs, Father Andrew often asks himself, “As a pastor, how do I see to all these needs?”
One response was to introduce new ministries in the parish. For the younger generation, these included the RCIY, RCIC, and the Young Adults Group. For the elderly, pastoral care for the sick, a cancer support group, and a Wake Room (Holy Spirit Oratory) for the recently deceased. Programmes such as Family Life, Alpha, and Parish Renewal Experience (PRE) were revived, and Landings, a ministry for returning Catholics, was initiated.
“These are challenging ministries which are very important. They are demanding and each one calls us to really love those in greater need. It’s our hope to reach out to many by providing opportunities and creating space for each to find God in their busy lives,” elaborated Father Andrew.
Those serving in various church ministries are quick to note that since Father Andrew’s arrival in February 2005, his first posting as a parish priest, the community has become more vibrant, especially because of his openness to new ideas for its growth, and his constant encouragement and suggestions for improvement. The parish priest often gives ample support to those who display zeal in improving their ministries for the good of the community.
This simple priest is not averse to working hands-on. He has been spotted balancing on a ladder to change a light bulb, fixing a leaking tap, and even assisting RCIA members in washing toilets in preparation for the Easter Vigil.
Initially, many parishioners thought that the moustached priest was a strict person with “a very serious image”, he said. But one ought not to judge a man by his appearance, because Father Andrew likes to crack jokes and make parishioners laugh, often with a deadpan expression on his face.
“Some people don’t know whether to laugh or not. Then they try to figure out if they should take me seriously,” smiled Father Andrew as he recalled those occasions.
Although their parish priest is kept busy most of the time, most parishioners agree that this does not prevent him from taking time to pause and listen to them. Whenever children come up to him, he never hesitates to talk to them. He also makes it a point to slow down for those who need a word of encouragement, or those who have questions to ask and doubts to clear.
Father Andrew strives hard to emulate Father Schotte, the priest who sowed the seed of his priestly vocation. He recognises that “true love calls for sacrifice, and so it is natural that I find myself tending constantly to the needs of my ‘spouse’, the Catholic Church”.
“Sharing in the lives of the people whom I serve is one of my greatest joys, and also one of my greatest ‘burdens’... I will feel some of the pain of their losses, but I also get to rejoice with them in their moments of joy,” he said.
But he is quick to note that his strength comes from the Lord and from “all my brother priests in the ministerial priesthood”.
“When I accepted my ordination years ago, I promised to be faithful to my ‘spouse’, the Church. No matter what happens, I will not walk away. I am married to the Church, the people of God whom I am called to serve.”
“At the end of each day’s work, I go to bed thankful for having had the privilege to serve the Lord Himself. There is no greater joy, no greater honour,” he shared, and then quoted St. John Mary Vianney: “The priesthood is the love of the Heart of Jesus. When you see the priest, think of our Lord Jesus Christ.” n