An Exclusive Interview with Fr Christopher Soosaipillai: Chosen by God
By: Kathleen Sammy,Ignatius Krishnan & Jeffery Lam(The PLIGRIM)
On 30 April 2014, we had the opportunity to interview Fr Christopher Soosaipillai, Parish of Priest of Church of the Sacred Heart, Jalan Peel, and Vocation Director for the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.
His Vocation Story
Ignatius begins the session and asks about Fr Christopher's family background.
Fr Christopher replies, "I am the 10th in the family of 6 boys and 3 girls. My dad died when I was 10 and my mum died in 2012. It was a great loss but it's a time of blessings."
"Sorry to hear that. So... you are the youngest in the family," confirms Ignatius.
"Yes, I'm the youngest and the favourite of my mum especially."
"Could you share your vocation story?" asks Ignatius.
"My vocation story started when I was 10 years old and my dad had died. When my dad died it was 1974. That was the first time that I ever thought of being a priest and it's because the priests were all not around. They were in Cameron Highlands, they were there for a meeting and that was the year when we had the Communion Ministers doing the services among the Churches.
So what happened was, during the service, the first time that I ever thought of being a priest was that my dad did not have a priest - the first thought of becoming a priest was that feeling of becoming a priest to give hope to somebody. Death does not mean that there is no hope. I just wanted to give that hope. And after that (experience) at 10 years old, I started to study.
And the other experience that touched me was when I was close to Fr Decruz, who was in Kepong. He was a very silent man, a very good man - he especially liked to keep silent in prayer. And that touched me a lot. And the way he gave his homilies - I found it very interesting. Very simple but it touched the heart. So I used to take my Honda70 from Klang Road and ride my bike to Kepong to meet him especially to see him celebrate Mass.
When he died, I went for his funeral. Remember, in Kepong, those days, Caritas, the Church was upstairs and his body was there in the Chapel itself. And I went to his body - I looked at him and started crying. I continued to cry until I had to slap myself a few times," shared Fr Christopher.
I ask, "How old were you then?"
"At that time I was still studying - doing my Computer Programming - that means I was around 20." He continues his account of the funeral, "And when I went there, I saw him and I started crying. And I was asking myself, 'Why am I crying? Why am I disturbed by his death?' And during that time, the Eucharistic Celebration, when the funeral Mass was going on, Fr Anthony Thomas preached for that Mass. And he said, 'Among you young men, who is going to take his place?' And that sparked something within." Fr Christopher snaps his fingers to emphasise the moment. "It only takes a spark to get the fire going. And immediately, I took my motorbike I went to see Fr Ponnudurai who was my Parish Priest, who is a Jesuit. He was in Fatima Church and I went to see him. And at the table, he had some computer books - remember I was studying about computers - and I began to tell him, 'Father! I want to be a priest!' And he said, 'Good! Good! Very good. What are you doing?" I said, "Father I am still studying. I am studying computers.' 'Very good. Take these books and go and study,' that was his answer.
I found it very difficult to understand why he did not catch me at that moment. I think what he was doing was to tell me to continue studying, and that if God really wants me, I'll come back. That's where I began my journey especially to become an active youth worker, active commentator, active lector. And that's when I began to learn how to sing - I love to sing - and I love to preach.
The third time that really - yes, I also went through relationships but I did not find the joy, that 'oomph'. And that is where I began to journey, to continue to be active in Church. I used to go for weekday Masses.
And Fatima Church was unique at that time when I was 22-23, it gets flooded! And I used to tell my boss, I was working as a programmer, and I used to tell my boss I'm going to Church. At what time? 3 o'clock or 4 o'clock in the evening and he would say, 'Why?' (I would reply) 'I want to go and clean the Church.' And that was my passion, my passion was to love God. And we used to go there, we enjoyed cleaning the church. And I was thinking 'is that going to be my joy?' In between Fr Ponnudurai was talking about Jesuits, but my joy was always Diocesan. Because I felt that Diocesan priests are basically in with the people. I found that, sorry to say that - that the religious, it's like touch and go. For me, a Diocesan priest is someone who is immersed with the people. To be with the people.
The third time that I felt God's calling was when I went to a Vocation Camp. I was telling everyone that I was going to a Vocation Camp. 'Have you registered?' they asked. 'No, no, I've not registered but I'm going.' And I went and I found that silence. And remember that I shared with you that Fr Decruz was a silent man - I found that silence. And that is where I felt God. He was just telling me, 'Come. Come. I will make you a priest.' I went into the seminary - 8 years of study - you might think that is long."
Ignatius asks, "When did you..?"
"I went into the seminary when I was 23 in 1988. Actually in 1987 I wanted to enter, I went and told my mum. Because I am the youngest, and my mum had that whole vision that I would take care of her. So when I told her I was going to be a priest, she said, 'Huh? You want to go?'. You see, the whole thought for her - because my mum comes from Sri Lanka - my mum thought that priests are basically not seen anymore by the family."
"The old-fashioned way..." I say.
"The old fashioned way. So that's what she felt, that I would not come and see her. So because my mum did not have that joy - that letting go - I kept a hold on my vocation. And I told Fr Naden, the Vocation Director at that moment, and I told Father, 'my mum is not happy.
And it's beautiful... in 1987, that year I celebrated my 23rd birthday, she came and told me, on the 31st of March, 'Chris, if you want to be a priest - go ahead.' And I found that joy in her.
"She gave her blessing," says Ignatius.
Fr Christopher says, "For me that was important. I knew my mum wanted me to take care of her and that's when I had her blessing. Before I entered the seminary - you know the process, I will share about it later - Bishop Soter Fernandez knew about my mum not being happy. And Bishop Soter, is a person who sees the family as very important, so the week he was going to say 'yes' to me, he said, 'I don't want to see you, I want to see your mum.' I said, 'Huh?
Startled, Ignatius and I laugh at the unexpectedness of it all.
"It was beautiful. I took my mum, Bishop Soter is a very generous man and is a person who will tell you, 'Come, come and sit.' But before entering his house, he did not say 'come.' He asked my mum, 'your son is going to be a priest, and when she said 'yes', (then he said) 'Come, come!' Now I was just thinking at that moment, I felt that was what he wanted - he wanted to see my mum happy. He did not see the Diocese or he did not see that 'I need a priest', but he wanted to see that my mum is happy. And that is when I went in and sat down, and he signed the letter to accept me."
'I have chosen you. Do you want to choose Me?'
Ignatius asks, "Father, you entered the seminary at the age of 23, so what happened after that?"
"Oh beautiful. Wonderful question. So, after 23, after what happened with Bishop Soter, I entered the seminary. And you know the seminary, there are 3 stages. 1st year of initiation, 2 years of Philosophy, 4 years of Theology.In between Philosophy and Theology, there's a pastoral year. That's when you go to a parish or a centre to do a process of learning with the parishes. It depends on the need. Then 4 years of Theology. In all my studies, the initiation year was in Melaka, the Good Shepherd Seminary, and then, every year, when we finish the cycle, we have to apply to Bishop - we have to write a letter to say 'Yes, I want to continue my studies'. So that means that after the initiation year, I write to Archbishop Soter saying that I want to go on to do Philosophy. With the approval of the Father at the seminary and of the Bishop, I take the step towards College General, Penang.
And that's when I went to Penang and started my studies for 2 years in Philosophy. After that I finished, again I had to write a letter for my pastoral. They will have assessments, the priests who take care of us at the seminary will have assessments - they will give the assessments to Bishop and my letter goes after speaking to my Spiritual Director. That is a very important person who helps us to grow. So the Spiritual Director says 'go ahead,' then I write the letter to Archbishop and then with the assessment, they say, 'go ahead.' And that's when I went into pastoral to move about with Dr Steven Selvaraju, who is now working in Penang. So we went to Nibong Tabel where I took care of Parit Buntar and he takes care of Nibong Tabel. So that is when I would take my motorbike from Nibong Tabel to Parit Buntar. Very interesting. That was one year and then after the pastoral year, I write again a letter for my Theology. Accepted, then I do 4 years.
"This is back in Penang?" asks Ignatius.
Fr Christopher confirms, "Penang. My whole seminary experience was in Penang. So during the time, there was always a question within me, 'Am I called? Am I ready to take the challenge? We used to have a one-month retreat at Chiang Mai. We have to go for one-month's silent retreat at a Jesuit centre."
"Seven Fountains..." I suggest.
"Seven Fountains, that's right" confirms Fr Christopher. "Fr Iker was my Spiritual Director and after going through that - you know the silence is wonderful. So after 2 weeks of that retreat, Fr Iker asked me, 'what is your answer - yes or no to continue?' Because if you look at the Spirituality of St Ignatius - there is a decision point before you go to the next step. So Fr Iker told me, 'Chris, you come at night and you tell me: going on or not going on?' Usually I see him at night, so I went back. I sat down in prayer in the morning and before seeing him at night. And as I prayed, sometimes you get the inspiration, and God was telling me, 'I will give you a red flower'. That whole inspiration, the whole prayer was, 'I will be with you, I will give you a red flower.' So after prayer, I walked - you know I think it's seven times bigger than SFX Church grounds if you've been there - so I walked and I never found a red flower.
And I felt very sad. I went back to pray and He still said, 'I will give you a red flower.' That assurance was there. You might say, 'Chris, you must be kidding.' But I really felt that He said 'I am going to give you a red flower.' That night I felt miserable, I could not eat and I was going to tell Fr Iker that I'm not going. So I was walking into Fr Iker's room, usually I sit down straight away. He said 'Don't sit down,' he gives me a book and on that book is a red flower.
And the name of the book is 'Path of a Jesuit'. Remember I asked the question: Am I worthy? I can still feel it and I get goosebumps. Because I know that God was telling me something. And Fr Iker gave me that book and he said, 'I'm not going to see you today, go and read the book.' How did he know? How did he get that inspiration? For me that was God. And I went back and I started my reading from 10.00 pm and I finished it at 4.00 am. I didn't stop. You know what the book was saying? It was beautiful, it said, 'Christopher, I have chosen you. Do you want to choose me?' I found that was enough for me. He says, 'Don't worry about unworthiness, we are all sinners and you learn from it.' Today I've been a priest for 17 years."
"Excellent," says Ignatius.
"It's amazing," I concur.
After the Seminary
"So share with us Father, what happened after seminary?" asks Ignatius.
Fr Christopher continues, "After I finished my studies, I had to apply again to be a Deacon and then priesthood. So I was ordained as a Deacon, and also at priesthood, I was ordained together with my classmate who was also from Fatima - we were ordained on the 21st of November 1996 at Fatima Church - Fr Ferdinand and myself. I was posted to the East coast with Fr Joachim Tan. It was in St Thomas, Kuantan and I was posted together with him as Assistant. During that time, Fr Gerard Theraviam was still the Parish Priest or Administrator of Kuala Terengganu Catholic Mission. But when I went in, Fr Gerard was already called to do further studies in Scripture. So the assignment came to Fr Joachim. Fr Joachim became the Administrator and I helped him as the Assistant. So Fr Joachim used to do one week to Kuala Terengganu and I used to take 2 weeks to Terrenganu. Then after 2 years of service in Kuantan, a new assignment comes and I was made the Parish Priest of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Mentakab. And there, I take care of Triang, Jerantut, Kuala Lipis and Raub."
"By yourself?" I ask.
"By myself," says Fr Christopher. "That was for almost 6 years. So basically I finished 2 years and 6 years in the East Coast. So after 8 years, usually there is a refresher course. Priests are usually called to go for some studies. That's when Archbishop Soter Fernandez suggested to me to go and do some studies in Rome and he said why not do Islamic Studies. So I thought about it and I wanted to take the challenge. To do Islamic studies, you need Arabic. There is a Pontifical Institute in Arabic Studies, I believe many of you would know that Najib, our Prime Minister and delegates have gone to this Pontifical Institute together with Archbishop Emeritus Murphy Pakiam, so that is where I went for studies in 2004. I went to Egypt and did one year of studies in Arabic. It is very difficult to learn Arabic but I needed to go to Rome. So I managed to pass and I went.
So I did that in 2005, in 2007 I came back to Malaysia, I had the joy of completing my studies. And then was posted to Sacred Heart as the Parish Priest in 2008. And together with that, I became the Vocation Director of the Archdiocese. Very strange - I mean, from Islamic Studies. But what I think Bishop was looking at both sides. So together with Fr Michael Chua who is taking care of that portfolio, I'm alsos Vocation Director of the Archdiocese. That is when I became the Vocation Director."
Parish Priest and Vocation Director
"So now that you are Vocation Director of the Archdiocese, what would be the roles and responsibilities?" asks Ignatius.
"Being the Vocation Director, there are basically two roles. One is to be the Vocation Director of the Diocesan Priesthood and also the Vocation Director to coordinate with other religious vocations either Sisters or Brothers or Religious Priests to coordinate and work for vocations. So basically we work together as a family of all diocesan and religious to promote vocations. To put the seed within young men and young women to become priests or religious," said Fr Christopher.
"So this is purely for the Archdiocese?" says Ignatius.
"Purely for the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur because every diocese has their own Vocation Director and vocation team. We call ourselves the Vocation Promotion Team."
The Process to Become a Priest or Religious
"So now, let's say a person wants to become a priest or religious, so what..?" continues Ignatius.
"So we know basically, there is diocesan priesthood and religious orders. So basically if a person wants to join - how do you get this call? It's three things: they have to love God. If they know God as powerful, loving, merciful. Pope Francis is saying the Church is merciful, the Church is loving. I think if basically a young man, a young woman has that love of God then automatically that love will touch people. And when it touches people, then one has that desire of 'sacrificing' because of the love of God - he wants to be a priest. So if that goal, that mission, that zeal is there..."
"So assuming that zeal is there, I want to be a priest - where should I begin?" asks Ignatius.
Fr Christopher replies, "Let's say for example, if a boy wants to be a priest, a girl wants to be a religious, they usually have a contact. That is where I will share with you about the roadshows among the parishes. So when we go there and we touch someone. Say a boy gets touched and he says he wants to be a religious priest, so we have a website and a contact number. We have posters around parishes and they see that and they call. If they call or write an email to me, and they say that they want to be a religious priest - if they also emphasise and say 'I want to be a Jesuit', or 'I want to be a diocesan priest' - I will link them to the Vocation Director of that congregation. So every congregation of sisters or brothers or religious priests or diocesan priests, we have a Vocation Director. So every one of us will try to help him to discern if that is his or her vocation. Say for example, during the process, he feels that he wants to be a Jesuit and then feels it's not for him - then that priest for the Jesuits can link him to the Diocesan Vocation Director. That means it comes back to me and I help him. It depends on the zeal of the person. You have to understand why religious and why diocesan.
Diocesan is basically that you are immersed with people, you are in the parish, you walk with the people. And you are in a sense 'alone'. If you look at all the diocesan priests in the parish, they are not like the religious who come back to the community, they come back to the support group who helps them to grow and to understand life. They have a support group that prays together - that is basically a religious priest."
"Is there a selection process Father," asks Ignatius.
"Surely. Say for example, if the person has written to me, I will need that guy to go back to his parish. See, what he has to do is basically to meet with his parish priest. He can continue to be directed by me or the Vocation Director but he goes back to his parish priest. Why? Because he has to get involved with the people. Because he comes from a family of that parish. So if he's not involved in the parish, then no one is going to support him. So he goes back to the parish, he sees the parish priest and he states his intention, and then the priest continues to lead him.
And then what he has to do is be involved in the parish as lector or catechetical youth ministry. Why? Because that is where he will learn about the psychological ways of his eagerness to serve people. Hoping, in the process, to find a Spiritual Director. So the parish priest can be different from the Spiritual Director. Why? Because the Spiritual Director can challenge him - either a priest or a lay person or maybe a religious sister - can be a Spiritual Director. That Spiritual Director can direct him, challenge him, and if he is a priest, he can also be a confessor.
And in that process, you need (proficiency in) English. All seminarian studies, are in English. And many of them find it difficult. So that is where we will ask the parish priest to help him to grow. If his English is good, beautiful, wonderful - he can manage. Because at College-General, there is a target that they want. You have to have the qualification of IELTS. And you have to get 6.5. That's the target. Why? Because we don't want them to be lost when they go to the seminary. So the parish priest will do an evaluation and then he goes and sits for the exam. If they are very good, if they already professionals - then it's not necessary.
And the other one is they must be involved in the parish. Then we can see how they grow. Then if the candidates wants to and the parish priest says OK, he's ready and the Spiritual Director says, 'yes, he is good', then he will write to me and say 'Father, I'm ready for the seminary.' That is where when he's ready for the seminary, and his English is OK, everything is ready for the seminary, then he goes through a test. I will initiate his name to the Bishop, and the Bishop says 'Ok,' he goes for the test. The test basically is to test his psychology and his eagerness to study and his IQ. These results will not come to me, it goes directly to Bishop. Because it's confidential. Very, very confidential.
So it goes directly to the Bishop, the Bishop looks at the test and the results. Usually it's sent to Philippines or Bangkok. Because the Jesuits do the test. They do the test here, they are sent to Philippines, Bangkok or Singapore, then the evaluation comes back.
After the evaluation, the Bishop will call me, the Vocation Director. I think the process is the same with all the religious orders - I'm not sure. But for me, it will come back to me, he will tell me if the candidate is good, or the candidate is not good. Or maybe, he needs more time. So if the candidate is ready, very good - I don't see the test, I don't see the paper - the Bishop will say 'give him the application form.' That is where they get everything ready.
The first person who will say yes to him is the parish priest. He will have to sign and say, 'yes, I am sending this candidate, the candidate is ready,' then that application comes to me, I give my evaluation of the candidate. The candidate has to write a letter to say 'yes I want to go to initiation' or to improve his English. If his English is good, then automatically he writes for initiation year. And I will say, 'yes, I am willing to accept him into initiation year.' I will give the application to the Bishop - he has to sign it," explains Fr Christopher.
I ask Fr Christopher, "How long does it take from the time..."
"It depends, it can be one year, two years. It depends on him, how he interrelates, if his English is good. Some of them if they're coming from the rural areas - then their English is often a little weak. If they come from the urban areas and they're already very good - then the process is fast. It all depends on the candidate saying, 'Yes! I want to!' But if he says, 'I don't know...' We won't take somebody who is hesitant."
"What about their age?" I ask.
"There is no age limit for being a priest. Basically what we want is English, 5 credits in the SPM, basically to have some college or institute studies so that he can fall back on that if he doesn't make it."
"So let's say a candidate comes with a Masters degree, so is there any lesser period..." asks Ignatius.
"Certainly. Let me give you some examples. Fr Gregory Chan, he's a lawyer by profession. He's a late vocation. Why do I say 'late' vocation - because he responded late. When he made the decision, he only entered around after 35 or 38. And in the process of that studies, he need not do the pastoral year. Remember? 1st year of initiation, 2 years of Philosophy, he was exempted from the pastoral year, straight away he went into Theology. Why? Because the initiation is to initiate you, and then Philosophy is basically the mind and Theology is the heart, so to link them both together to be a priest. So age is not..."
Ignatius says, "Age is not a factor and also the education is not really a factor but because of work experience, you can knock off the pastoral year."
Talking about the need for candidates to have some sort of qualification for their own good should things not work out in the seminary, Fr Christopher stresses, "Because it's important for a person to be ready. And always remember going to the seminary, is going to be a learning process. In the process of being in the seminary, if you find yourself not for this vocation, then there must be something that you can fall back on. But if you don't have the education - you don't have some degree or some qualification, then what are you going to fall back on? And that is where the diocese or the Bishop will always look at this."
Vocation Roadshows at Parishes
Ignatius says, "So Father, we know what will happen in the seminary. I'm just wondering, for these newcomers, or so called 'potentials' do they get to experience what it's like... is there such a programme?"
"Yes, before we had a vocation camp. Remember I said, we initiated vocation camps, but nowadays young people find it very frightening to come for vocation camp. Because when you talk about vocation, 'Ah! Priesthood! No, no, no, no, no!'"
Ignatius asks, "How many days is this, Father?"
"It's 3 days. Friday, Saturday, Sunday. We had one in 2004. We had more facilitators... we had 8 religious and priests and there were only 3 (young people) who attended the camp. And that is where, in 2004, after that vocation camp did not go well, we started the Vocation Roadshows in the parishes. That is where we go as a group of people. Surely I will go because I will be the priest who initiates it and then the religious come in. So sometimes there are 13 or 14 of us. Sometimes 8 or 9 religious."
"How is it different then, I mean, these vocation roadshows?" asks Ignatius.
Fr Christopher responds, "Because the vocation roadshow catches them on the weekends and also at Catechism time. So what we do is..."
Ignatius and I both ask, "So you mean you go... you set up here?"
"Yes, we go to the Parish. So what I do is I would normally write to the Parish Priest and say that on these dates I will be going to your parish - will you accept us? And then after that if he says yes, then we work together with the Parish Priest, the Catechetical Coordinator, because we want to touch the Form 1 onwards. You might ask, "What? So young?' But we want to plant the seed - God works wonderfully.
So we get in touch with the Catechetical or the Youth Coordinator and also we hope that the priest will call the parents to join in. So on Saturdays - Saturdays are usually weddings and things like that - you can't catch them continually for a long time. So during the Mass, if I'm celebrating the Mass, I will initiate to pray for vocations, 'and let us pray for your sons and daughters, look at your friends and relatives...' During the homily I will initiate that whole celebration of the life of vocation, and then maybe I will ask one of the religious priests, sisters or brothers to share their story. Like what I've shared with you. In the congregation itself when the Mass in going on.
And when we share, after that I will link it to the readings of the day to given them a glimpse of that connection. Then after that, that Saturday, we ask those who want to ask any questions. Then we share with them - it's just a short one. If there is nothing, then we pray and go home.
On Sundays, it's a different structure. Sundays, we touch on the Catechism children. So however many Masses there are - I am ready to celebrate. Or maybe the religious priest who is also on my team, they are able to celebrate. So if there's two religious priests then we will try to separate out the Masses. And during that Mass, I will ask one of them to share. After the Masses, we have Catechism time, right? So that is when we call all of them. So if the group is big, we divide them. That means Form 1, Form 3, parents those who come, Form 5, Form 6 youths and parents.
It's helping. The vocation camp is helping the congregations, those of them who have a good focus. The diocesans are clear (about their charism/direction). The Jesuits are clear. Capuchins are clear. CDDs are clear, Redemptorists are clear. But the Congregations... Some of them are clear. The Little Sisters of the Poor, their focus is very clear - taking care of the old folks. But if you look at the IJ Sisters - their focus, they are going to rural areas but are there vocations? Canossians, yes. Little Sisters, yes. FMDM, yes.
So we work as a family. So some of them might say, 'Father, do we need Diocesan priests? I say, yes. But there is also a charism for young men to be different. If a person needs support, then the religious would be better. I'll give you an example, Bro Robin Devasagayam, who is a Montford Brother. He came to become a Diocesan priest, he was with me in the seminary in Melaka. But after a while, the priests at the seminary suggested to him 'why don't you go to Montford?' And today, he is a Montford Brother. So they helped a student to see where is his charism.
If his charism is for the diocesan priesthood then good for the diocesan. But if it's not, then we suggest to him and we don't let them be lost. We help him find where is his joy."
A Day of 'Lepak' to Promote Vocations
Fr Christopher continues, "So we have vocation promotions. For the Diocesan priests, usually we have a day of 'lepak' (hang-out). Those of them who are interested to be Diocesan priests, they come and 'lepak' with me in Sacred Heart Church. This is the meeting point. Or I send a registration form to all the parishes and those of them who want to know about Diocesan priests or what we do as Diocesans, then they come and 'lepak' with me. So they stay in the parish house. You bring your mats and we start with Holy Hour, Friday night and then we have a 'lepak' time of maybe a movie. I share with them some glimpse of vocation, then the next morning we start out with morning prayer. We have sessions for different priests, diocesan priests come and share. So they finish with sunset Mass and then they go back. And during that time, I will share with them what I've shared with you - what they need to do.
So it happens with the religious orders - they have days of 'lepak'. So if one writes to us and they write to them, then they will call that candidate to come and stay with them for one day. The Daughters of St Paul have received one or two, so have FMDM. So they are inviting young women to their congregation to 'lepak'.
And then if, they want to experience College General - College General has a day, they call it 'College General's Day'. And that's for 4 days, it starts on Thursday and they complete it on Sunday. And they stay there, they go for classes, for prayer."
Ignatius asks, "Being a Diocesan Priest, are you tied to a parish?"
Fr Christopher answers, "All of us as Diocesan priests will be posted to a parish. What is the length of the process? It's always 2 terms. 3 years and 3 years. Now that's the minimum. Maximum, it depends on the bishop where you stay in the Parish. Now are you tied?
I find that being in Sacred Heart there is a lot of joy and blessings because it's a family. Just imagine you have five or six thousand parishioners. It's not just being a priest. Being a priest also means that you have to be a friend to them. So it's not only a parish, it's also having another assignment like Vocation Director, to take care of the diocese. Most of the Diocesan priests have a double portfolio. And it doesn't make you feel burdened, we are all-rounders like Archbishop Emeritus Murphy Pakiam, 2 years ago when he shared in a Chrism Mass, he told the parishioners that 'these priests who are sitting in front here - are not only priests, they are engineers, psychologists, architects, they are all-rounders'. And this is what today, the priests are doing.
"But Father, here we are looking at this century, the 21st century, times are different. What are the challenges for the priests in today's environment?" asks Ignatius.
"I think the challenges today... Sorry to say this... The people want to experience God and sometimes we, priests, we have to pray hard that we give them God. We give them love. Sometimes the parishioners will come and say 'Father why do you scold us?' 5 days a work they work then they come to receive the blessings, receive that love. And one of them said, 'Father, I just wish you could hug me, that's all.' And I think what that person was telling me is 'Why are you scolding us? Yes, we are making mistakes, we do wrong, we are committing 'sins' - but we need to be loved also. We want to experience it. And I think what Pope Francis is saying today is: are we loving?
You know I have a parish, if you come to my area, you will say, 'Father, where is the (availability of) parking (space)?' And today, you will see that parishioners are coming to Church! They are coming to Church!
Initially, I said, 'Why are you all coming late?' and after that, looking at their situations - some of them take two buses to come to Church. Leaving early in the morning because of the Tamil Mass, and I found myself saying, 'Why am I scolding them? Just give them God.' And I think when they experience the love of God then they become a family. And I'm seeing it take place very beautifully at Sacred Heart and I find that some of them come and say, 'Father I came late', I say, 'That's okay. There are many more who will not come today.'
Sure, the challenges are there. Which priest will not have challenges? One of the parishioners came and said, 'Father, why you didn't want to get married?' I said, 'I'm married to all of you. Today I have all these children. Yes, I also want a relationship but what is beautiful is that I have all of you. And I know that we can fight, and we can challenge and we can move on. "
The Lack of Response to the Call
I ask, "Father, over the years there has been a drop in vocations. So why is it do you think that young men and women find it so difficult to respond to the call? Has God stopped calling them?"
Fr Christopher replies, "I don't think so. I don't agree with that. I believe God calls. And I believe St John Paul II, a few years ago when he was Pope, he shared and he said, 'God calls'. I think young men and women - they are fearful because they don't experience God as I shared. When a person knows that God really loves you. That God really wants you to become that instrument. Then that fear will not be there.
That is why if you remember the song", and he sings, "'Do not be afraid, I go before you always, come follow me...' Beautiful song! He says, 'It's not you. I'm already there, before you.' And I think if young people can experience that love of God, and the love of the people, the little sacrifice that they do, definitely you want to go to discos, to go to the park, to get married. It's something so normal.
Many young men and young women, find the priesthood and religious life, not something that they will think of straight away. If you ask young men or young women, or a doctor or nurse - why have they not thought of being a priest? They see a priest every week. They see a sister if they go. That's what I shared with you just now - I think we, priests and religious, must bring the love of God. And I think it's touching lives today with Pope Francis, becoming a different Pope. And I find it very beautiful. Maybe many people will say, 'Ah? Why is he being like that? But I think it's touching many people. And I think if we priests and bishops do as what the Lord would do... You know, just for example, let me ask you, if somebody comes for Mass and says 'Father, bless me.' Are you going to say, 'I just blessed you.' Many priests do that, you know? And I find it so painful. What is the need of the person?
If Jesus at that moment, remember that lady who had that haemorrhage, she said, 'If only I could touch his cloak, I can be healed.' When a person comes and says, 'Can you bless me, Father?' - can you not give a hug and say, 'God loves you.'? I think that is something that is missing in us. But I think if young people can experience that closeness of God... I find that young men and women today find it hard to listen to God. But I believe that song has beautiful meaning - that 'I go before you'. If young people can realise that and say that 'I become a priest or religious - it is as His instrument and He is already there'. So definitely, there is a fear 'Will I make it?', 'Will I be a good priest?'. Remember I also said 'I have chosen you, do you want to chose me?'
Ignatius asks Fr Christopher about his prayer life. "Do you have a specific way of praying?"
"We all know that we have a basic standard prayer, the Divine Office, that is something that we have to pray. The Divine Office is the prayer of the Church. But I also like the prayer of silence. I learnt it from Fr Decruz, remember I shared with you, that Fr Decruz is a role model for me. Especially in the silence of Our Lady, Our Lady is very important and you will find me in silence at the moments of praying my rosary. That silence is wonderful. And I used to sit down with the Lord for one hour before the Blessed Sacrament. Why? Because of St John Vianney. Remember when St John Vianney became a priest, he was the rejected one. He was not intelligent. But he had a heart of love. So he went to the Chapel, he sat down in front of the tabernacle and said, 'I see You. And You see me.'
And for me, sitting down in front of the Blessed Sacrament for one hour or two hours is to pray so. Many people say to me, 'Father, you look young.' And I say it's because of the Blessed Sacrament. For me, I find the Blessed Sacrament wonderful. Sometimes, sorry to say, I do not say the Divine Office, I go to confession for that. But that silence, with the Blessed Sacrament, I will not miss. So that is that. And Our Lady, she is always there, she is wonderful - I call her Mother."
Rest and Relaxation
"Father, you must have a lot to do as Parish Priest and Vocation Director, so what do you do to relax? Do you have to relax?" I ask.
Fr Christopher smiles and says, "Yes! Definitely. The moments of 'lepak' is beautiful. You know, when I was studying in Rome, I had times of 'lepak'. The study part was not so heavy. Why? Because I used to take a walk to the Vatican. I'd buy a gelato and sit down and enjoy it. And I think relaxing for me, here in Malaysia, here in my parish, is basically walking, and for me, silence is also basic. If you ask me to go for a movie, I'll say 'no', I love to sit down in silence and watch my tv and put my legs up on my table, and just enjoy whatever is on the tv. But I also like to take a stroll and walk in the gardens, because I believe that that is the time that I get my inspiration on what to preach.
Let me share with you an experience. A wonderful experience. I went for a walk and I saw a man standing still for 45 minutes."
"45 minutes?" says Ignatius.
Fr Christopher continues, "Walking and walking, and I see him standing there for 45 minutes. And I looked at him and I said 'What is he doing, standing still? What does he remind me of?' 'Be still and know that I am God,'" quotes Fr Christopher from Scripture. "For me, that voice came to me - 'Be still and know that I am God' - in the silence - 'Be still and know that I am God.' And then the man bowed down three times after that. For me, it was the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit - I bow down to God who takes care of me.
The other thing I do is, I go back home. If my mum were still alive - remember I shared that my mum thought I would leave and not come back home? Every time when I went back home, she's still asleep and I'm already there at 8.00 in the morning. Just imagine, when I was in the East Coast, I used to drive back early in the morning, and try to be back home before the jam starts. And I'm already back sitting down in the hall and maybe having a coffee, and she comes down from her room and says, 'Oh. You're already here.' My mum speaks Tamil. Just imagine, 'You're already here.'"
"And you went back every week, Father?" asks Ignatius.
"Yes, I tried my best every Monday to go back home. And she felt that, 'you're already here'. And you know mums, the youngest son coming back - oh joy! And we would sit down and we would talk. Family is beautiful and I have a wonderful family. I have a family that's very big. I have 28 nieces and nephews, and one of them just got married. I'm hoping for one of them to become a priest! But what I think is family life is very important for a priest and I think that is a time to 'lepak' too. You know when I was in the East Coast, I could not come for weddings, I could not come for birthday parties. I could not baptise my nieces and nephews. Why? Because I taught them to go back to their parish. So I only baptised one of them, very gratefully, the last boy in the family, the 28th one. Why? Because I was going for my studies and I was waiting and staying in Assumption Church. And they asked me if I could baptise the child. That's when Fr Phillips who was Parish Priest, said why not? The only child in my family that I've baptised."
"When people look back on your life, how do you want to be remembered?" asks Ignatius as we wind up the interview.
"I want them to remember that I gave them God. I want them to remember that the silence speaks of God's love. You know, when Jesus was on the Cross - at that moment, when they realised that He is truly the Son of God. If on the day I die, somebody can just come and say to my family, 'he was a good priest'. I have accomplished it."
We thanked Fr Christopher for his time with us. Earlier on we'd asked him to come with the Vocation Promotion Team to SFX and so we hope to see them all one day at Mass.
Note: The Malay word 'lepak' is widely used by Malaysians to describe hanging out, a time to relax.