Vocation Sunday is usually an appeal that is directed to single young men and women to listen to God’s Call, to give up their secular life, so as to embrace the life of the ordained priesthood or the religious life. This vocation appeal also includes living a life of single blessedness in apostolic service or consecrated virginity, which our archdiocese also have. Clearly, time does not permit me to elaborate on each of these forms of God’s calling.
However, let us note that for the past 50 to 60 years, since Vatican II Council, these vocations that I have just referred to is on a constant and dramatic decline worldwide. This trend is part of a larger trend of the decline of the number of Catholics attending Weekend Masses worldwide. This trend of decline may not be very evident in Singapore as our weekend Masses are still very full and in most churches, packed to standing room.
I would say from statistics, that if most Catholics were to return to Church and attend our weekend Masses, we will have the great joy of having to build ten or even more churches in Singapore. The challenges of our Singapore archdiocese has been and continue to be the renewal of our Catholic faith. This is precisely why His Grace, our Archbishop William Goh has since he became the archbishop, for the past three years been urging all our Catholics to build a more vibrant, evangelising and mission oriented church.
Rightly so, St Paul in today’s First Reading from the Acts of the Apostles challenges us, and indeed all Christian believers to remember and reaffirm that God has created us to be “a light for the nations, so that His Salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” And in order to be God’s Light, Jesus in today’s Gospel of St John says, “The sheep that belong to Me, listen to My Voice. I know them and they follow Me. I give them eternal life.”
Why, you may ask, is this trend of decline so constant and dramatic? The answer is obvious. Secularism and materialism, has won the hearts of all peoples and the world leaders, in the name of progress; captured the imagination of peoples, in the name of success; and diluted the values of families and the Gospel of Christ, in the name of freedom. In fact, secularism and materialism have the effect of creating greater self-centeredness, self-gratification and self-glory, than it is about progress, success or freedom. When these falsehood poison our minds, permeate our hearts, and promote immorality, it is no wonder that our efforts to promote vocations are ineffective and unconvincing; our sharing of how God can fulfil our lives of service for the sake and salvation of others, fall on deaf ears, hardened hearts and broken families.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, God through St Paul in today’s First Reading and St John’s Gospel is precisely challenging us to turn the tide and trends of our secular world. This is possible, with God provided we are each willing to open our hearts and accept God’s graces, on this Vocation Sunday, to reaffirm and renew the purpose of why God has created you and me, and has chosen to put us on this planet earth. We are not animals on the earth that exist today, and become extinct one day. St Paul reminds us, firmly and clearly that you and I are created to be “a light to the nations, so that the Good News of Salvation may reach the ends of the earth.” And if we want to live this Will of God, then, Jesus in today’s Gospel proclaims that we have to “listen to His Voice”, follow Him closely and then receive the gift of eternal life.
In other words, my sisters and brothers in Christ, a vocational “calling” is God calling each of us, and indeed all believers to live the selfless and sacrificial life that Christ, Our Lord has shown us. This is to live a particular lifestyle that puts Jesus Christ at the centre of our lives, and to make Him known, loved and served.
This also means that even as I share my vocation story briefly, I would like you to know /that what I am sharing also applies to every Christian believer, whether you are lay person, priest or religious, or whether you are single or married. My story of God’s personal involvement in my life will also be a story of how God in different ways are personally involved in each of your lives. So, as I share my story, I would urge you to also try to sense the presence of God in your life too. God HAS been Present; He IS Present; and He Will continue to be Present in all our lives. So, Jesus in today’s Gospel is challenging all of us to renew our relationship with Him for He is saying to each of us, “The sheep that belong to Me, listen to My Voice. I know them and they follow Me. I give them eternal life.”
God “called me to join the religious Order of the Society of Jesus; also known as the “Jesuits” 33 years ago; and out of these years, 23 years were as a priest. As I reflect on all these years, it would be false humility on my part if I did not say that I can only thank God for these years as they were and continue to be all very fulfilling and joyful years; the formation years of philosophy, regency, theology and tertianship were very focused on helping us, not only live a more wholesome life, but more importantly, helping us build a more personal and intimate relationship with Jesus. What is very clear and continue to be very clear in my life is the need to live in God’s Providence daily. This is so because God who loves us so deeply and infinitely, will only want to give us the very best in life; and the greatest joy of living and the fullest of reward when we die; which Jesus tells us today, is Eternal Life.
Fr Philip Heng (left of pic) as Jesuit Novice Master - 2005 file picture
My brothers and sisters in Christ, when God calls a person to live a life that He Wills of us, He is offering us what our Gospel calls the most “precious pearl” in the field; literally, nothing in this life matters more than possessing this divine gift that comes from God our Father Himself. This has been so true in all my experiences of my past 33 years as a Jesuit, and 23 years as an ordained priest.
Let us not be mistaken that, when I say all these things about my vocation, I am not so much as saying that I am good and holy, but more so, that about infinitely Loving GOD who has showered His Goodness, Love and Mercy on me. A Jesuit is defined as “A sinner, yet called by God.” So, a vocation story is about God working in our lives and not so much about a priest or a religious.
With God’s graces, when we dare to surrender our lives to God, who is daily calling you and I to deepen our relationship with Him, His Providence will ensure that we live the most meaningful, fulfilling and joyful life on earth; together with the reality of the crosses that come our way, for when God places Jesus’ crosses on our shoulders, they are meant to challenge us to grow more intimately in our relationship with Him . . . for we cannot know Jesus deeply until we also get to know the “Suffering Jesus” who went through His Passion and Death for us.
Unfortunately, most people think of the priesthood and religious life as a life that is confining because we have to give up our material possessions and embrace the vow of poverty, give up our freedom and embrace the vow of obedience, and give up all the “great time” we can have in relationships and instead be bound by the vow of chastity.
My sisters and brothers in Christ, if we think this is what the vocation to the priesthood and religious life is all about, /then we are very clearly viewing God’s Calling from the very secular and materialistic point of view, and this is furthest from the truth. . . and I say this, from my past many years as a Jesuit religious priest. If you are not convinced, then I urge you to reflect on the lives of the good Christians that you know, and better still read the lives of the saints and martyrs of the Church; the greater models of the Church.
I would like to conclude by saying that a “saint” can be defined as is a “sinner who kept on trying to be good . . . and in doing good out of our love for God our Father, and Jesus as our friend, and the Holy Spirit as our guide, then/God will surely one day make us a saint . . . for Jesus in today’s Gospel assures us, “The sheep that belong to Me, listen to My Voice. I know them and they follow Me. I give them eternal life.”
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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