We were blessed to have Father Johnson Fernandez over at the seminary for a night of fellowship and thanksgiving. The community celebrated his belated birthday and shared in his joy and contentment. During dinner, Father Johnson got to know each of us and even asked where some stayed, recounting his various postings over the many years of service; truly, a pastor of souls never rests.
Proceeding onto fellowship, we learnt much from his many years of priestly life. Classmates with Father Eugene Vaz and Father Adrian Anthony, Father Johnson was ordained in 1971 at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour. He shared his struggles as a young priest and shared the evolution of the Church in Singapore. From learning how pre-nuptial forms were filled up to the various lessons from the Missions Étrangères de Paris (MEP) priests who shepherded him, Father Johnson shared deeply and vulnerably of the life of a priest. One lasting lesson from an MEP priest was not to take life too seriously; a saying that would help deepen his pastoral heart and grow in becoming the good shepherd that he is.
At the request of the Bishop, Father Johnson studied catechetics in Pennsylvania and later film and television in New York. Coming back, he brought the Rite of Catholic Initiation for Adults (RCIA) and Children’s Liturgy to Singapore, with the first of these programs starting from the Church of the Holy Family. He further challenged himself and learnt how to use the computer in order to lead more effectively the Catholic News in Singapore.
In the course of his sharing, Father Johnson advised us as priests-to-be, to spend more time preparing succinct homilies; 10-12 minutes, with good stories! For the RCIA process; that we must help the people searching for God to fall in love with Jesus Christ. Notes, while good, may not necessarily be as effective as poignant stories.
Abreast of the times, Father Johnson also pointed out that in this world of information, printed media would likely meet its demise especially with the shorter attention spans of a handphone-obsessed era. In light of this, what does that mean for our Catechism classes? What memories are we helping to grow in our youth? Would the emphasis on rites and rituals be as effective as having a more personal touch?
Sharing the fruits of the Family Integrated Religious Education (FIRE) catechesis which he initiated in the parish of Christ the King, Father Johnson shared just how much it means for the children. Recounting the incident of a child whose parent was unable to teach in the FIRE program due to work commitments, Father Johnson still remembers how proud the child was when the parent was able to finally give a session to the rest of the children. All the people of God have gifts – some to teach, other to play musical instruments, others to provide a venue, yet we never really know the struggles that others are undergoing.
His parting advice to us would be to pray, work for unity and to be good listeners. For it would be only be for the Church’s benefit for the presbyterium to be united, and an active prayer life would be essential for this unity to become a reality. Finally, listen to those who come to you, for not all who come seek answers, but all do seek a portion of your heart.
We continue to pray for good health and an ever-bigger heart for Father Johnson as well as your prayers for us seminarians, that we too may become shepherds after the heart of the Good Shepherd.