Today we celebrate “Good Shepherd or Vocation Sunday.” While the married life is also a vocation; which is a calling from God, I would like us to reflect on the vocation to the ordained priesthood and religious life, as many of you may not know what it is like to be a priest and religious.
You or your children may have questions like, “How do you know that it is God who is calling you?” “How sure are you that you will not leave your priesthood and religious life after taking your perpetual vows?” Can you really be happy when you are called to serve others all the time? What about your own needs? What are the vows of perpetual obedience, chastity and poverty like? Many even think that to live these vows especially the vow of chastity and obedience is to live a sub-human and abnormal life. Also, what about the temptations of the secular world, how do you resist them?
My brothers and sisters in Christ, these and many other questions are impossible for me to answer within the short time of this homily. So, if any of you are seriously asking these questions, then please feel free to approach me or one of our Jesuit priests personally.
When I was in primary school, I remember filling up a card that asked for choices in “career”. One of my options was “Priest”. Then again during my “O Levels” I had to answer a similar question; I again put down “priest” as an option. Even though the vocation to the ordained priesthood was always an option, I never ruled out the option of the married vocation. I was like any good young Catholic who had the desire to marry, have children and family. However, the girl whom I would marry would have to be a Catholic and as good and holy as my mother! Actually, I did meet these good potentials, especially when I was studying in the UK, but God’s calling to be a Jesuit priest was stronger.
Msgr Philip Heng, S.J. with his father after taking his first vows
After some three years of consciously trying to discern God’s calling in my life, I finally wrote to my father and confessed to him that after completing my studies in accountancy, I would like to become a priest. His answer surprised me. He said, “I am not surprised that you want to be a priest because over the last few years, your letters were getting holier and holier!” This was way back in 1982, some 33 years ago. To make a long story short, as God’s calling and promptings to become a priest were getting stronger and stronger, my desires for success in the secular world and all the material and financial possessions in life became weaker and weaker.
Fr Hugh Thwaites, and English Jesuit priest who was the overseas student chaplain during my studies in the UK got me thinking about the meaning of life and my vocation more seriously. He was truly exemplary: a man of prayer; had selfless dedication in his service of the poor, especially the Blacks in South West London. He lived such an edifying life that I told myself, “I would like to be like him and age graciously like him.”
When God was calling me, I experienced them as deep attractions and inspirations within my heart that I could not resist. Yes, I could still have turned away from God’s calling and allowed myself to be attracted by the lures of the secular world and the good and attractive Catholic girls that came may way. But, by God’s graces, as He knew my weaknesses and sinfulness, He persisted and pursued me. I knew in my heart of heart that if I were to be sincere with myself and want to live an authentic, meaningful and fulfilling life, then I have to say “yes” to God’s calling; there were no other choices!
Now, looking back to the past 32 years of my religious life as a Jesuit and 22 years of my ordained life as a priest, I can only say that I am deeply grateful to God for calling me; unworthy though I am. I would say that even though all my seven siblings are living their married vocation with great fidelity and fulfilment, I think I am still the happiest person in my family. My vocation has brought me great happiness and fulfilment in my life; primarily in knowing that God has and continues to want to use me to serve His People and the world who are all hungering to live a meaningful and happy life.
Msgr Philip Heng, S.J. working with the poor in Philipines
My sisters and brothers in Christ, you and I, and every person in the world want to be happy. “Happiness” is more than having the latest iphone, carrying the latest branded handbag, driving the most expensive car, owning the biggest house.
All these may be good in themselves; the Church is not against riches, but we all know that a very important ingredient and reality of “happiness” is more than material and financial riches. Thus, happiness is more than “having, carrying, driving or owning” things. “Happiness” is about “being and living and becoming.” And this is about the quality of life. The basic question we need to confront ourselves is, “Am I living a meaningful and peaceful life?” This is because “happiness” is a quality of life that is fundamentally found within our hearts. For the married vocation, this is lived and experienced within our homes, but for the priesthood and religious vocation, in the service of God’s people.
“Happiness” is most fundamentally found and experienced in the way we use the gift of “freedom;” the human freedom that God gives all humankind when He creates each of us in His own Image and Likeness. Deeply rooted in the deepest desires of our heart is to love God with our whole heart, soul, mind. Therefore, we are most fully human when we love God wholeheartedly and single-mindedly. Likewise, we are least human when we do not love God and turn away from Him. It is in this context that I could not “resist” God’s calling when He called me to be a Jesuit priest.
It is therefore absolutely ridiculous and the greatest lie on earth and falsehood to say that “human freedom” is to do what I want and what I like, even though the secular world may influence us to think and behave in such manner. We all know that we cannot do what we like because reality is bigger than our own needs, ego and pride. Our human freedom is to be used for the greater good, respect and service of others, and not according to our whims and fancies. We have to stop when we the traffic lights turn “red” regardless of whether there are other vehicles on the green lane or not; we cannot make racist remarks in our facebook, Twitter and the like even though we may not like another race or another person.
In other words, “happiness” is experienced in loving God and living in His Ways. In today’s Gospel, when Jesus calls Himself the “Good Shepherd” He is expressing the truth of His total self-sacrificing Love for you and I and all His sheep. Jesus the “Good Shepherd” is expressing an infinite and divine Love who is willing to lay down His Life for His sheep.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, as I sum up and conclude, let us remind ourselves that vocation and holiness are both one of the same calling from God. When God calls us to a particular vocation, whether it is to the ordained priesthood, religious life, single-consecrated life or the married life, we are each called by God to live a life of holiness.
This life of holiness is a life of commitment to God to love Him wholeheartedly and serve others whom He will put into our lives out of love for Him, who is Our Lord and Saviour. There is a saying that spouses are put together by God to help each other get to heaven. The people God will put in my life as an ordained Jesuit priest and the people He will put into your life are different. However, you and I are called to a life of holiness. A holiness that will give us the true happiness and fulfilment that we all long to have; a happiness and fulfilment that the secular world cannot give, but only God, Our Good Shepherd, who loves us personally and totally and selflessly to the point of laying His down His life for our sake and salvation can give.
Msgr Philip Heng,S.J.
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