Homilies

Good Shepherd - Vocation Sunday
Acts 4:8-12; 1 John 3:1-2; Gospel John 10:11-18
The Good Shepherd’s Love  – Vocation Story of Fr Philip Heng Preached by Msgr Philip Heng, SJ at Cathedral of the Good Shepherd - Singapore, on 22 April 2018

Today, we celebrate Good Shepherd Sunday or Vocation Sunday.  The “Good Shepherd” we all know refers to Jesus, whose image He chose for His Mission of how He loves His Father so totally and unconditionally.  Jesus expresses such deep and intimate Love He has for His Father in freely and willingly laying down His life for the sake of His sheep whom His Father Wills to save.  The sheep clearly refers to you and I and all who are lost, wounded, wandering and exposed to the dangers of wolves who are lurking in the vicinity, and waiting for opportunities to attack the helpless and powerless sheep.  These “wolves” are the evils of the secular world and also not forgetting the sins within our hearts that continue to distort, distract and tries to destroy the Truth of Jesus and the Good News of Salvation.

As a priest, we are in many ways given the task and responsibilities of being the spiritual and pastoral “shepherd” to the flock of the Catholic community that is entrusted to us.  However, all of us are primarily sheep of the Good Shepherd, who is Jesus our Risen Lord and Saviour.  As believers, we are each protected, cared for and loved very personally and absolutely by Jesus in all situations of our lives.  This Truth is affirmed by Jesus in today’s Gospel, when He proclaimed, “I am the Good Shepherd; I know My own and My own know me, just as the Father knows Me and   I know the Father; and I lay down My Life for My sheep.” 

I recall vividly what happened the very evening, some 30 years ago, while I was a student overseas. I was sitting in the armchair of my comfortable room, reflecting on the meaning of what life on earth is about, it suddenly dawned on me that, “our life on earth is solely to prepare for our life after death.  And, that whatever we do, and whatever life and opportunities we have on earth, we are meant to be used as God’s blessings to gain eternal life

More specifically, in this insight, and by God’s grace, I became clearly aware that even if I were to live till 95 years of age, my life on this earth is merely passing and only temporary.  Whereas, our life after death is infinitely longer and has no end; it is eternal.  So, whatever time we have in this world compared to eternal life, is like comparing a drop of water to the ocean, or a speck of dust in the universe.  I remember being very inspired and excited about the sudden spiritual insight.  Following from there, I then asked the Lord in my prayer, “Lord, how would you want me to live my short life on earth, so that I can gain the eternal life that You wish to give to me?  

After some months of reflection and prayers, it became clear to me that the only way for me to live my life on earth in worthwhile and meaningful ways, is to live in accordance to the Father’s Will.  I also knew that what this Will of God is for me, could mean that I had to give up the desires and dreams of my heart, and be open to God’s Will for me.  And, to me at that time, it was difficult as I was interested in someone, whom I was also excited about and thinking that the married vocation was God’s Will for me.  And so, in my prayers I prayed, “Lord, if it is Your will that we are meant for each other in the married vocation then, I am sure You will make it happen, but if it is not Your Will, then quite honestly, I do not know how You can separate me from her.  However, I know that in Your Love for us, You would part us in Your peace. 

To make a long story short, about a year later, we parted . . . in peace . . . not in pieces.  This was somewhat painful for me, but I knew I had to accept God’s Will.  My next prayer to the Lord was, “Lord, do you have someone else for me or are you calling me to the priesthood vocation?  There was somewhat “silence” for a year or two, until I began to realise that in my Legion of Mary weekly visitation of African families in the South-West of London, on behalf of the Jesuit chaplain, Fr Hugh Thwaites I began to realise that I was finding deep peace, joy and fulfilment in serving the spiritual and pastoral needs of these overseas students who were in great need. 

Gradually, over time, my heart’s desires were increasingly filled with deeper desires and inspirations of wanting to serve God’s people, and to become more like the very dedicated and edifying Jesuit chaplain priest, Fr Hugh Thwaites, who was serving the pastoral needs of the African students with great compassion, care and love.  Seeing how Fr Thwaites labour so selfless, humbly and prayerfully, I told myself, if I become a priest, I want to serve and grow in my old age like him.

And, so as months went by, and as my desires to become a priest became stronger, one day, I wrote home to my dad and said, “Dad, when I finish my studies, I would like to be a priest.”  To my great surprise, my dad replied, “Actually, I am not surprised that you want to be a priest because over the past year, your letters were getting holier and holier!”Fr Philip Heng, SJ taking the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) First Vows - perpetual simple vows of poverty, chastity and obedience (pic below) & with his dad (pic above)

When I announced to the Legion of Mary members of the international students chaplaincy to which I belonged that I was joining to priesthood, and was accepted as a seminarian by the Kuala Lumpur archdiocese Archbishop, they were all filled with great joy for me.  In their farewell card everyone, some ten of them who had become my close friends, signed and pledged to my great surprise, that they would each say a whole Rosary for me daily, till my day of ordination!  Wow!  Being overjoyed, I said to them, this is a great commitment of easily six years of daily Rosaries!  They assured me, “Yes” that is our spiritual support for you.  The Spiritual bouquet was truly my greatest joy. 
After returning to Kuala Lumpur, to make a long story short, after further months of discernment, I wrote to the Legion of Mary members, and told them that my discernment had led me to join the Jesuits!  They replied, “O my goodness, now instead of praying for you for six years, we have to pray for you for 13 years!  In any case, they were relieved to hear that I was ordained on the tenth year of my formation as our Jesuit Superiors found that I was ready for ordination.  The Legion of Mary members were happy to hear of the “discount” that I received. 

In today’s Gospel of St John 10:11-18, Jesus mentions five times, “I lay down my life” for My sheep.  We are very clear that the divine and infinite Love that Jesus has for His Father, has also moved Him deeply to love us totally, compassionately and unconditionally, so that His Father’s Will of saving us from eternal destruction can be fulfilled. 

My brothers and sisters in Christ, over the past 35 years as a Jesuit religious and 25 years as a priest, I have constantly experienced Jesus the Good Shepherd’s unfailing protection from all evils, temptations and dangers, and indeed the “wolves” of the secular world and of the sins of my heart who were waiting to tempt and attack me and my vocation.  If not for Jesus, the Good Shepherd’s protective care, compassion and love for me, I would certainly not be here standing as a priest and as a Jesuit before you.  The fact that I am still able to love and serve, and live my vocation with much fulfilment, joy and happiness, I take no credit from this.  Daily, as I serve and live my life, I constantly remind myself never take GOD, and the gift of my precious vocation for granted, and daily to thank Jesus, the Good Shepherd, for all that He has done and been to me all the years of my life, since my childhood, through my family and my priesthood and religious life, till what I am today, before you.  You may wonder, as lay person, how is it possible to live the vows of obedience, chastity and poverty?  The vow chastity appears to be inhumane and void of the warmth of intimacy of the family, the vow of poverty seems to deprive us of the material securities of life and the vow of obedience seems to rob us of the human freedom, that we need to assert and affirm for our self-respect and identity.2005 Picture of Fr Philip Heng, SJ, then Jesuits Novice Master (Malaysia and Singapore) concelebrating Mass with fellow Jesuits

My brief answer is, “If God calls us to the priesthood and religious life, then living the vows of chastity, poverty and obedience on the contrary are experiences of joy and freedom in our love and commitment for Jesus.  God will always give us the graces and strength to be faithful to Him, and would never burden us with crosses that we would not be able to bear and would crush us.  The crosses of our vocation (as also in the married vocation) can only draw us close to Jesus and love Him with more wholeheartedly and personally.

As I conclude, let us remind ourselves that all that I have shared about my vocation is essentially the testimony of ALSO how Jesus, the Good Shepherd, continues to love you at all times.  And so, even as Good Shepherd or Vocation Sunday is often associated with the vocation to the priesthood and religious life, let us also be sure that, today, Jesus the Good Shepherd is also inviting you, through your married vocation, to deepen your love for Him, to renew your commitment to live your faith and to strengthen your hope in your lives, and your vocation by building your future on Jesus, the Good Shepherd’s unfailing Compassionate Love, Care and Providence for you and for me, and indeed for all believers, in His Good News of Salvation. As you have heard how God our Lord had in a very personal way, led, protected and guided me in my life and vocation, the same Spirit of the Risen Lord, will also surely continue to guide and protect and care for you and your family in your daily living, regardless of the challenges, trials, and joys of your lives.  And so, let us never lose sight of the Good Shepherd who is always there for us, in all our needs, and whose Love is always protective and personal, and will willingly lay down His Life for our sake and salvation.

Fr Philip Heng,S.J.Note: Fr Philip Heng, SJ - Anniversary of Ordination to the Priesthood is on 14th May 2018. Please pray for his religious vocation and priesthood. Thank you.

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