LUMEN | JOSEPHIANS
By Rachel Tan
You are never too young to sign your life away to God , meaning and purpose . Franciscan Friar John-Paul Tan makes a case for asking life ’ s toughest questions at age 16 .
The year 1977 must have been somewhat of a good vintage for St Joseph ’ s Institution , at least where the harvest of religious was concerned . The graduating class produced four priests from the Military band alone and the wind section , contributed clarinettist , Friar John-Paul Tan .
He was ordained as Singapore ’ s first Franciscan priest in 1990 at age 29 and now serves as parish priest of St Mary of the Angels and with the archdiocese as a canon lawyer .
It was a very productive batch , the 51-year-old Friar acknowledges with a smile - one that produced contemporaries like Fr Leslie Raj ( Jesuit ), Fr Anselm Phang ( Carmelite ), Fr Joachim Chang
( Diocesan ) and Fr Terence Pereira ( Diocesan ). Certainly it could have been something in the water that year , but Fr JP as he is better known , attributes the crop to the strong sense of
Catholic culture that was imbued in the students from the get go . That and perhaps the sense of brotherhood in the band , cultivated by the interminable drills on the parade square and the bonding over school activities like the Lenten Vigil . Otherwise , school days were spent as he confesses , pleasantly ,
but thankfully and uneventfully ‘ under the radar ’.
While Fr JP wasn ’ t born a Catholic , he was primed for the faith by his dad who signed him up for St Michael ’ s and later SJI . As a former alumnus himself , the elder Mr Tan saw much that he admired in the values and culture of the school . And he obviously wanted his son to imbibe much of it .
And so he did , and continued to do so after leaving SJI . On the invitation of his band members , the young John-Paul joined the church of the Holy Spirit . He was active in the choir , youth groups , and missions and was immersed in parish work under the mentorship of parish priest , Fr Louis Fossion CICM . At 17 , he was baptised at the church and his parents and younger sister followed suit shortly after .
“ My parents had raised me to be independent and I recall the deep conversations over coffee after dinner or while on our weekly fishing jaunts . We were encouraged to think , question and form an opinion , so when it was time for the baptism , it went smoothly . And when I decided to join the friars , though perhaps not fully understanding my choice , they nevertheless supported me .”
Fr JP credits Fr Fossion for giving him a glimpse of how the priesthood could be a viable vocation for a young man . The intrepid Belgian missionary had been ordained at just 24 and sent to remote Mongolia to serve until he was ejected from China by the communists . Larger than life , he was equally pastoral as a leader to his flock , as well as hands-on as a handyman , clambering up the roof of the church to fix leaks .
In being conscripted to help the priest , John- Paul discovered first hand what it took to be called to serve . Fr Fossion , the friar noted , essentially gave his life to a project that was ‘ totally beyond him and his imagination ’ and was continually stirred to serve with joy for the next 70 years of his life .
“ Once as we were helping him clear rubbish after a parish feast day dinner , we saw how he got his hands totally covered in garbage along with us . He commented later that these hands were not only consecrated for celebrating Mass but also needed for the dirty work . And this gave me a fair idea of what he thought and believed about being a priest and a missionary .”
Like most guys on the verge of completing his national service , there were the usual distractions for the young John-Paul . He had a girlfriend and was headed for Toronto for a liberal arts degree when his call came . Everything that had seemed to