By Agnes Chai
KOTA KINABALU — TWENTY-two years to the day 21 January 2021, Archbishop John Wong offered his life to love and serve the Lord in the ministerial priesthood at St Mary’s Church (now Cathedral) Sandakan, and was ordained by Bishop John Lee (now Emeritus Archbishop).
No one ever envisaged being a pastor/priest in a pandemic, but since March last year (2020), the coronavirus has plunged the world into unprecedented times of crisis. No one was spared from its path of destruction, socially, economically, culturally, and even spiritually.
It was with this background that Archbishop John Wong shares with Catholic Sabah how he views himself being a pastor in the pandemic as he celebrates his 22nd anniversary of priesthood with COVID-19 restrictions. It was his first experience of a pandemic in the likes of the coronavirus.
He recalled that since the dramatic arrival of the pandemic in March last year, “it seemed like we were caught in a surreal world where everything that happened in the past few months came out of a movie”.
But as reality sank in, said the Archbishop, it took awhile and much effort and energy to adjust to the new normal, and with God’s help we managed to reach the recovery stage in July.
Excited to be recovering from the devastating experience, Archbishop Wong remembered how relieved and eager he was to reopen for Mass, and to come up with numerous plans to help the people to get back to “normal”.
“But most of the plans did not come to pass as the nation was struck by the second and third waves of the coronavirus. I am reminded of the saying “Man proposes, God disposes” which once again taught me a humbling lesson that we must always live in the present moment according to the space and will of God,” recollected the Archbishop.
The Sandakan-hailed priest, 52, worked as a salesman before he surprised himself and responded to the influence of a priest (the late Fr Tobias Chi) in answering to the call of vocation. He had plans to be a “happily married man who looked forward to have a big family”, but it was not meant to be. As God would have it, he found himself answering the call of priesthood.
After being ordained a priest, he was assigned to serve as assistant priest at the Sacred Heart Cathedral parish in Kota Kinabalu from 1999-2002. He went on to take up a two-year Licentiate in Carmelite Spirituality in Rome, and returned in 2004.
Before he realized it, he was appointed as rector of the Catholic Diocesan Centre in Penampang and director of the aspirants. Next on the list was his appointment as Co-adjutor Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu in 2010, and upon the mandatory retirement of Archbishop John Lee in 2012, he was appointed as the 2nd Metropolitan Archbishop of Kota Kinabalu.
Rest of the interview:
Catholic Sabah: Do you mind sharing what are your immediate pastoral concerns for the faithful, and for the clergy in the pandemic crisis?
Archbishop: My immediate concern as a pastor was to keep connected with the people. I was of course very affected in trying to find effective ways to keep close to the faithful, supporting them in moments of fear. I tried to preside as many online Masses as I could in order to keep connected. Many rosaries and novenas were organized, and many messages were passed by way of sending out communiqués. By July during the recovery stage, wherever possible I tried to visit parishes when invited.
As for the clergy, I was readily available for consultation or to offer pastoral advice for their particular situations; for example, if they need to close parishes because of exposure to the COVID-19. But generally, I leave it to their discretion to decide on pastoral activities according to their assessment of the local situations and their capabilities to contain any untoward situations.
Catholic Sabah: What was the most difficult challenge to effective caring for your flock during this unprecedented time?
Archbishop: Personal contact. In a certain sense, the feeling of being “cut off” loomed large and real. Thank God for social media. But although the social media was there, the preferred choice was still personal contact.
Because of the SOP requirement, the KK priests went on their annual retreat without the priests from the other two dioceses. Some retreatants found the “new normal” retreat experience surprisingly acceptable, with the quietness providing an ambience for a more focused retreat.
Catholic Sabah: The coronavirus is making us think about our own mortality. Please share how you view your own mortality in the midst of carrying out your pastoral tasks during the pandemic, if you don’t mind.
Archbishop: There are some things that one cannot avoid as a pastor. Though I do not fear death, I do my best not to catch the infection from others, nor do I want to give it to others. Death is within God’s plan. One cannot postpone it nor hasten it except by foolishness. I also hope that by staying “healthy”. I could prevent the infection. By “healthy”, I mean that one must drink sufficient water, be disciplined in exercise, eat right and have enough sleep.
Catholic Sabah: During the pandemic and in the era beyond it, we are required to live in the “new normal”. In your opinion, what might be the most striking change that will affect the pastoral care of the people in the post-COVID-19?
Archbishop: Against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic, increased media consumption was the norm. As a result of being locked down at home, consumers spent more time online to virtually connect with others, socially and commercially.
I recalled in earlier days if you want to sell your products, it will take time for the products to reach from the seller to the buyer. Today, media has placed the world at our fingertips, making it easy for us to buy and receive on demand.
Though media cannot fully replace a physical gathering, especially with the Sacraments, it has nonetheless played a new role in the pandemic with evangelization. Through media, the Church in spite of social distancing, continues to meet us where we are – in our living rooms, on our phones, scrolling through social media looking for some connection. In addition, media can reach those who might never otherwise walk through a church door.
I believe more concerted efforts to use the social networks as an effective way to express the missionary vocation of the Church are called for. Currently, there are already some parishes taking an aggressive lead in this direction with the use of social media platforms and radio podcasts.
Catholic Sabah: What would you reckon is the most important lesson from the pandemic?
Archbishop: The period of lockdown has shown that if given a chance, nature can flourish again. Therefore the lesson points us to stop, listen and think what we should do to restore and care for our common home.
The pandemic has reminded us that no one is saved alone. What unites us together is solidarity to build together a better, different, and human future.
Ultimately, we need to trust that God is in control, that He is for us, that He is with us, and that we are a people of hope. We cannot control life, nor what happens to us, but we are able to choose how we respond.
Catholic Sabah: On the occasion of your 22nd priesthood anniversary you shared that you spent some time reflecting on what God has done and what you have received from God. Would you mind sharing about it?
Archbishop: Looking back each anniversary year I am grateful for the support, both spiritual and physical, that I have received from the faithful. Here I would like to single out: a) God for His faithfulness and love which is reflected in my human weaknesses; and b) Emeritus Archbishop John Lee for accepting me as priest in this diocese of KK, without which I would not be here today.
As for my weaknesses, the Lord has showed me that I need to pray for wisdom so that I may pass it on to others; that I need the grace of humility to be able to accept correction from others. Please pray for me that the Spirit will come to the aid of my weaknesses.
As I flipped through the photo collection of my ordination 22 years ago, I could see God’s immense blessing for a journey that is truly filled with grace. I don’t know what lies ahead, but as I look back, I find it hard to understand how much God’s love there is for one who has no ambition except to be just a simple priest who wants to serve God’s people.
Perhaps this excerpt from the book entitled Thou art a priest forever by J. B. Henri Lacordaire, OP can best express what is in my heart at this moment:
To live in the midst of the world with no desire for its pleasure…
To be a member of every family yet belonging to none…
To share all sufferings, to penetrate all secrets; to heal all wounds…
To daily go from men to God to offer Him their petitions…
To return from God to men to offer them His hope…
To have a heart of fire for Charity and a heart of bronze for Chastity…
To bless and be blest forever.
O God, what a life, and it is yours,
O Priests of Jesus Christ.