Desmond said the lines from St Teresa of Calcutta’s ‘Dark Night of the Soul’ experience helped him understand his own spiritual dryness while in the seminary: ‘Sometimes the darkest places we will go, the hardest work we will do is to keep ourselves headed toward the Light’.
By Audrey Ansibin
Nov 11 2020
* First of a two-part series
AT the beginning of the year, two seminarians joined the St Simon Catholic Church Likas community for Pastoral Immersion. The first of this two-part series is on Penang-hailed Desmond Jensen, whose experience at the parish was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Likas rector, Fr Cosmas Lee, said he was initially somewhat reluctant to receive Desmond, who is from the Penang Diocese.
“I accepted Desmond with some reluctance for I thought that coming from urban Penang, he should be sent to some rural rather than an urban parish like St Simon, for different exposure,” Fr Cosmas said of the 33-year-old seminarian studying in St Peter’s College Major Seminary, Kuching, Sarawak.
“Arriving on Jan 3, 2020, he was supposed to stay for four months. Covid-19 shortened it to two and a half months. He was with us for just under two and a half months.”
The objective of Pastoral Immersion is not meant for the seminarian to do some pastoral work, “rather a time to live with a priest to be initiated into the life and ministry into which they feel God has called them”.
Fr Cosmas said among the daily routine of the seminarian included are daily prayer, Eucharist, actual pastoral ministries and works, house chores and gardening, recreation, meals together and fellowship.
“(These) are the usual daily activities the seminarian shares in order to be immersed into the life-style of the priest,” he said.
“As I personally take the liturgy seriously in the spiritual life of the priestly life and ministry, I always begin as soon as the seminarian is here, with spending a lot of time daily, sharing the meaning of the daily prayer, the Mass texts, daily scripture readings etc, to try to help him see the lessons God gives to a priest-to-be.
“From this sharing, I would lead the seminarian to see how to lead the flock in the way of the Good Shepherd in the concrete situations of the parish.
“Seminarians spend years in the seminary, but I find they often lack sufficient understanding of the Gospel or its application.
Desmond with his parents during his installation into the Ministry of Acolyte.
“In my experience, I find the average seminarian, as with the average young person, often over-anxious looking for opportunities to display his skill with some show-case talk/seminar he already has in his pocket, instead of seeing the actual pastoral need and responding to it appropriately.
“I often have to firmly curb such need for display and attention. The average seminarian usually would accept my advice that they are not here to show off, but to quietly come to know the flock (black, grey and white sheep) and their situation, and to respond to their actual and unique need.”
Desmond, whose passion includes travelling, reading novels as well as books on world culture and heritage, hiking, jogging and photography, grew up in his maternal grandmother’s house until he was seven years old.
“I believe the seed of my vocation was planted in me when I was five,” Desmond said, adding that he looked up to his parish priest, the late Fr Alexandra Edwin. “I imitate him by doing mock mass at my grandmother’s house.”
He was at first apprehensive on letting his parents know about his intention to join the priesthood.
“To my surprise, when I told them, they were so happy for me. They gave me all the support that I needed and continued to support me and pray for me until today.”
He considered being assigned to Fr Cosmas for his Pastoral Immersion as a “blessing”.
“Fr Cosmas is great role model and teacher who taught me a lot during my stay in St Simon Catholic Church (Likas) with great patience,” Desmond said, adding that he found the rector to be someone who practised what he preached.
He said the rector was hands-on in their daily prayer life, hiking as well as encouraging them to appreciate gardening, among others.
Despite his short stint at the parish, Desmond said he managed to work with the Youth Ministry, Sunday Schools, RCIA, homebound programs and the Parish Liturgical Committee, particularly the choir and communion ministers.
Due to the inter-State travel ban at the time of renewing his permit in Penang, he was unable to return to Sabah to complete his Pastoral Immersion.
However, Desmond said he was still able to communicate with the KK parish community online.
“Together with the parish youth, we started with weekly chit-chat session in the beginning, sharing about our life during the pandemic.”
He said the sessions later moved on to more serious topics like the Lenten theme of “Ask, Seek, Knock, Give” and “My Vocation Journey”.
He said while the online platforms were a necessary substitute to flatten the coronavirus curve, it will not be able to replace real-life interaction like being able to appreciate the other person’s gestures or “being present for someone in their time of need”.
Desmond (centre at back) in one of St Simon Catholic Church Likas parish’s activities before the lockdown. Also seen is his fellow seminarian Wilson Francis (far right).
Rest of the interview:
Question: Young men called to the priesthood usually say they felt hesitant or unqualified to answer the call. Would you say your experience was similar?
Desmond: You might ask yourself, “Am I worthy to be part of God’s plan” or “I am a sinner, I can’t be part of God’s plans, I am not worthy”. Always remember God doesn’t call the qualified, He qualifies the called and this is my favourite quote: “Every Saint has a past and every sinner has a future”. If God can choose St Peter who denied Jesus three times, to be the first Pope, and St Augustine who lived an immoral life before his conversion to be the father and Doctor of the church, can’t He do the same miracle for us, too? Often the very things that you think have disqualified you from being part of God’s call are the ones that qualify you to do what God has called you to do.
Question: Would you say the pandemic crisis strengthened your conviction to become a priest?
Desmond: Definitely, yes. The pandemic has shown me the other side of the coin of becoming a priest, that is, to be a bridge builder, creative and inclusive. During the pandemic I saw how many priests started doing online Masses, online talks, starting a prayer hotline, bringing together the people for prayers and sessions, using social media. This really inspired me that being a priest is being available for the people always even in the time of difficultly.
Question: Who inspires you the most?
Desmond: Msgr Stephen Liew and Msgr Henry Rajoo (both my former parish priests). I saw the word “Persona Christi” in action through both of them when they were my parish priests. I would like to borrow Pope Francis’ quote, “Be shepherds with the smell of your sheep, in the midst of your people like Jesus the Good Shepherd”. Truly, both of them were shepherds with the smell of sheep, always available for confession, visiting the sick and the poor – the list goes on. Apart from that, both of them also did not give up on me on my discernment journey, continually praying, encouraging and guiding me even until today.
Question: Who is your favourite saint? Why?
Desmond: Saint John Paul II and Saint Teresa of Calcutta.
Just like everyone else, I was also very doubtful and fearful in answering God’s call. At the time, I was journeying with my parish priest Msgr Stephen Liew. He gave me the biography of Pope Saint John Paul II to read and as I was reading, this particular line in his biography inspired me so much: “Have no fear of moving into the unknown. Simply step out fearlessly knowing that I am with you, therefore no harm can befall you; all is very, very well. Do this in complete faith and confidence.” I just felt that God Himself was telling me that. After joining the seminary, I was still filled with doubt and spiritual dryness. The formation in the seminary was so hard and difficult. I almost left the seminary but my spiritual director at the time, Fr David Reagan (OFM Cap), suggested that I read about Saint Teresa of Calcutta’s “Dark Night of the Soul”. True enough, this particular quote inspired me:“Sometimes the darkest places we will go, the hardest work we will do is to keep ourselves headed toward the Light”. Carry the cross and follow is just not merely a sentence but it is the way of life that Christ has shown us to follow.
Question: What advice would you give to young people discerning their vocation to the religious life/priesthood/ marriage?
Desmond: Do not be afraid. As we grow older, we will pass from one stage of life and move to another stage of life: from childhood to youth and to adulthood; from schooling to university and working life. Just like that, vocation is also a journey in our life together with Jesus. Every vocation is equal with different mission in building the kingdom of God. Do not be afraid when God calls you for religious life, priesthood, marriage and even singlehood. God has a plan for you and me which He has planted in you and me in this earth for a mission/purpose. Jeremiah 29: 1 says, “For I know the plans I have for you”, declared the Lord “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you Hope and Future”.
Question: Would you say there’s a difference between churches in the peninsula and Malaysian Borneo? What are some of the similarities, besides the liturgical practices?
Desmond: The first thing that surprised me was the population of Catholics and churches all over Sabah and Sarawak. The Catholic population is in the minority in the Peninsula. The religious tolerance among the people of Sabah and Sarawak is something which we are losing in the peninsula. The similarities were more on the structure of the diocese and management level.
* Next Series: Interview with Seminarian Wilson Francis, who came a few days later after Seminarian Desmond arrived at the Likas parish