This Sunday (Aug 1), seven permanent deacons from the Malacca Johore Diocese will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of their diaconal ordination. They are a rare group of people who have received all the seven Sacraments. To help us know more about permanent deacons, here are their stories.
JULY 29, 2021: Seven men dressed in white albs stood before the Tabernacle at the Cathedral of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Johor Bahru and vowed to serve as deacons on Aug 1, 2011 and the Rt Rev Bishop Dr Paul Tan SJ, then the local ordinary of the Malacca Johore Diocese, ordained them. Here is what was different. Among those in the church witnessing the ceremony were the wives of these deacons and their children.
These are permanent deacons. Married men who have regular jobs like you and me, and who have a calling to serve God in this capacity. Just like St Stephen, the first martyr, who was also the Church’s first permanent deacon. There are two types of deacons – transitional deacons and permanent deacons. (To know more about deacons, go here.)
One of the seven ordained that day was the Rev. Deacon Dr Leslie Petrus. He says: “This will always be the second most memorable day after my wedding day 32 years ago. The moment I made my wedding vows on that blessed day, my wedding vows got reinforced at the moment the bishop laid his hands on my head and I prostrated myself at the litany of the saints. As I laid myself on the floor, I felt in my heart my wife was with me. The Sacrament of Holy Orders conferred on me seems to have a unison on my matrimonial vows to my wife.”
The 60-year-old dental surgeon regards this calling as one that involves both him and his wife Feona. He serves at the parish of St Joseph’s, and has a private practice operating in Johor Jaya for the last 26 years.
As for his practice, he says: “It is a miracle I can run it until now, even during this pandemic time. Besides this, there are difficult patients that I need to deal with. In all these challenges, God was there.”
Two worlds in one
Deacon Petrus along with the other six have over the last 10 years served in various ministries in the diocese, from giving homilies, to performing baptisms and last rites, leading ministries and assisting the parish priests. All this is done in the evenings, weekends and public holidays. Come Monday morning, they get dressed and go to work, make sure they make enough to pay the bills, attend to their wives and children, and face the same kind of problems we lay people have.
It may seem like two parallel lives, but that is not so, according to the Rev. Deacon Louis Martin. He sees no distinction between his diaconal life and his professional life. He feels he ought to be as Christ-centred in his Church duties as he is in his work. He says that his life in church must be the same as his life outside the church compound.
“We cannot live with a split personality,” says the 59-year-old bank manager who lives in Kluang, Johore. He feels that his identity is now wrapped in his role in Church. “We need to live a life that reflects our ordination. All my staff know that I am involved in Church work and so they are careful in how they speak to me. They make sure that their speech is respectful and there are no vulgarities.
“We check ourselves because we are ordained. We’re not saints, just ordinary people, but we’re in the Church hierarchy.” Deacon Martin realises the weight of his role now and that it is different from the time when he was involved in parish ministries and activities in his younger days. He now conducts baptisms and funerals, and also does preaching and these demand spiritual discipline. While serving, he ensures that he regularly assists as the Mass, which is his greatest source of spiritual strength. Besides that, he also regularly prays the Divine Mercy prayer and receives encouragement from a group of close friends.
All this has had its effects. “My children say I’m calmer now, and don’t get angry as much as I used to. God has been good to me and my family.” He says changes like this happen over time. “It’s a daily thing. It’s not as though once you are ordained, everything just happens. The change is there in every pain and struggle. But it is all lovely. It has been an enriching and fulfilling 10 years for me.”
The other five permanent deacons who were ordained with him and Deacon Petrus were: Deacon Anthony Chua Yong Giap, Deacon Arama Das P. Sinnathamby, Deacon Louis Martin, Deacon Offic Joseph Velangany, and Deacon Joseph Arokiam Gratian.
Strong desire to serve
More than 10 years ago, these seven men were approached by Msgr Sebastian Francis, on behalf of Bishop Paul Tan, asking them to discern their calling. They agreed to do so and went through two and a half years of formation that was to prepare them to be ordained as permanent deacons. The Rt Rev. Datuk Seri Sebastian Francis, who is now the Bishop of Penang, was then the parish priest in St Louis Church in Kluang and the Vicar General of the Malacca Johore Diocese.
“We were told that possibly not all of us would be ordained. In the end, all seven of us were ordained,” said 60-year-old Deacon Das. He has always been passionate about serving God and had wanted to be a priest when he was growing up in an estate in Kluang, Johor. He had moved to Kuala Lumpur because his elder brother wanted him to get a better life and so he work in an assembly plant there.
When he was there, he attended the Fatima Church in Brickfields. One day he approached parish priest Fr Ponnudurai to tell him of his intentions to join the priesthood. Fr Ponnudurai, however, told him to wait till he was 30. He was 24 then.
But when he was 27, he had to return to Kluang to take care of his 80-year-old father who was bedridden after a bad fall. He took care of his dad until he passed away. Then he got a job as an administrative clerk in Singapore and commuted to work from his new home in Senai. He then started to learn how to do goods clearing at the port there. That led him to start a business where he traded in used palettes and that has been his mainstay for the last 16 years.
He was told to get married because that was what his father would have wanted him to do. He then got married, moved to Kulai and had four children but the desire to serve continued to burn within him. He started to serve in various ministries, mostly with the Tamil Apostolate in his parish in Kulai.
From army to clergy
Deacon Joseph Gratian didn’t know what a deacon was many years ago when he was approached by his then parish priest Msgr Sebastian Francis to pray and find out if he was being called to serve as one.
“At that time, I was involved in the Charismatic Renewal and Tamil Apostolate,” said the 78-year-old former warrant officer who has received a total of three prestigious awards for his meritorious service. He first got involved in ministry work at the Immaculate Conception Church in Port Dickson when he was serving at the army base there.
Then when he was posted to the camp in Terendak, he got involved in the ministries at the St Francis Xavier Church in Malacca. Upon retirement from the armed forces, he relocated to Kluang to be together with his relatives who were based there. He then became a vegetable wholesaler at the market in Kluang. Once his children were all grown up and went on with their own lives, he attended the St Paul’s Institute in Chennai and graduated with a diploma in Bible studies.
The 78-year-old retired from official service as permanent deacon in 2018, but like all other clergy, continues to serve in an unofficial capacity. Prior to the pandemic, he was assisting the parish priest at outstation Masses, where he would often help to preach in the Tamil language.
Deacon Anthony Chua was the legal adviser to the Malacca-Johor Diocese when he was asked to pray about being a deacon. “Bishop Paul invited me for lunch in Malacca that day and invited me to reflect and discern about being a permanent deacon.” It was a lunch that changed his life after that. Deacon Anthony had been serving the Church in various capacities, including as a choir master, and now he was given the opportunity to give more of himself to the Church.
“When I was studying in London, I was involved in the parish there as a guitarist for the choir. So anytime there is a need, I say yes. The diaconate thing gelled with me because it’s to do with service. I see that my role as a deacon is to bring the values and the teaching of the Church to social issues and matters of truth and justice.”
The 57-year-old based in Malacca says that permanent deacons face issues and challenges like lay people. “We also go through tough times but we are happy and at peace because the suffering and pain that we face is for doing what is right.” He sees his role as being in perpetuity and not something temporary. That is why he says he and the others need to have the courage to continue in their role. “Our role as deacons is not just for the moment. We need to be truthful, compassionate and be a leader.”
In his younger days, Deacon Offic found himself having enough time in his hands to be involved in parish ministries although he was working in Singapore and had to commute daily from Johor Bahru where he was living. Then he was asked by Msgr Sebastian to consider the diaconate which he did.
“Over the years, I was posted to three parishes – Church of the Immaculate Conception, St Theresa’s Church in Masai, and Skudai Catholic Centre.” The 54-year-old serves mainly in the Tamil Apostolate, the Charismatic Renewal, and the BEC desk, and says that his family helps him cope with his ministry by being present in the parish to also get involved in those ministries. He usually has very little time to rest, and it is an ongoing challenge for him.
Deacon Offic is still working in Singapore now as a supervisor in Singapore Post. In fact, he has been there since March last year and has not been able to return because of the lockdown in Malaysia. But this has not prevented him from carrying out his work. He is now organising a massive Charismatic gathering involving the Tamil Apostolate in September which will all be done via live streaming.
Permanent deacons are the link between clergy and laity
Msgr Peter Ng is the spiritual advisor for all the permanent deacons in the Malacca Johore Diocese. He says: “I have two permanent deacons – Deacon Louis Martin and Deacon Joseph Gratian in my parish in Kluang. I’m glad I have them. They ease my workload, but that’s not the main thing. Being a permanent deacon is a vocation, God’s calling. Not a job. Certain events in your life lead you to a point where you want to serve the Church. Permanent deacons are not lay people, they’re ordained ministers. They participate in a priest’s life and a bishop’s life.”
“Permanent deacons are the link between the clergy and the laity. The priest is mostly within the boundaries of the church, while the permanent deacon is in the marketplace. Deacons are therefore the link between the liturgy and everyday life. They serve at the altar and then work in an office. They are a link between the Church and the world.”
“They make the Church rich. The parish sees the fullness of life with them.” Msgr Peter and all the other deacons quoted here spoke to Journey With Us – Asia through live streaming recently.
All the seven deacons were invited by either Bishop Paul or Msgr Sebastian more than 10 years ago to seek the Lord for discernment, through an extended duration of regular formation, on whether they should apply to be ordained as permanent deacons. This ordination of seven deacons saw the diocese having nine permanent deacons in total, with the first two being ordained prior to the others.
When Bishop Paul ordained these nine deacons, he had clearly explained that he was not ordaining them based on pragmatic reasons, but rather, on the theological reason that the fullness of the bishop’s episcopal ministry becomes most apparent only when he has “a deacon on his right and a priest on his left”. There has since not been any new ordination of permanent deacons in the diocese, and whether or not there will be any such ordinations in time to come is the prerogative of the current local ordinary to decide.
Letter in own handwriting
Men who have a calling to serve the Church in a greater capacity need to go through the canonical process that leads to the ordination as permanent deacon. It is not an automatic procedure.
“I needed to write to request for it in my own handwriting. Yes, I was invited to initiate the discernment process, but upon discernment I needed to request for ordination in writing,” said the Rev P. Deacon Dr Sherman Kuek OFS. His ordination as permanent deacon was one year earlier, that is on June 16, 2010.
“That was on my 34th birthday.” The bishop can only ordain a married man who is 35 years and above but he can give a dispensation of one year. Which is what happened in the case of Deacon Sherman. He was from Johor Bahru but was then based in Seremban. He had come to Seremban to teach theology at a Protestant seminary there. But that was when he was still a Protestant. He continued living there once he became a Catholic. He had somewhat settled down in Seremban. He got married two years earlier and so his wife and his parents were with him.
Then Bishop Paul made him an offer – to return to Johor Bahru and head the Malacca Johore Diocesan Pastoral Institute. A theologically trained person was needed and Deacon Sherman fitted the bill. Bishop Paul was at that time also reinstating the permanent diaconate and proposed for Deacon Sherman to discern if he had a calling to be a deacon.
“Although I felt a calling to be a deacon, I knew that I also had a calling to serve the wider Church and not just the diocese. The bishop understood my request, and being a missionary at heart, he told me that he would ordain me for the Church and not just the diocese alone.”
One of Deacon Sherman’s main challenges as a new deacon was the fact that he had a Protestant background. A number of priests were not sure where he stood as far as Catholicism was concerned. “For the first few years, I was subject to a lot of scrutiny since some clergy did not understand that I became Catholic precisely because I was well-versed with Catholic theology. But with time the credibility built up.”
The deacons say that over the last ten years they have had a strong and positive relationship with a good number of the priests and the bishops. “They are pleasurable to work with and they are supportive of our role,” says Deacon Sherman.
Deacon Das says: “I have learnt something from every parish priest that I have served with. The same with the bishops. I have had a good working relationship with all of them and appreciate the support they have given all of us permanent deacons.”
The deacons of the Malacca Johore Diocese also recorded their deep appreciation for Msgr Peter Ng in his role as spiritual advisor to them in the past several years since the passing of the late Fr Ignatius Huan. According to them, Msgr Peter has been a strong source of encouragement and guide for them.