5 Gracious is the Lord, and righteous;
our God is merciful.
6 The Lord protects the simple;
when I was brought low, he saved me.
7 Return, O my soul, to your rest,
for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you.
15 Precious in the sight of the Lord
is the death of his faithful ones. [Psalm 160:5-7, 15, NRSV]
William Chong was a man of Christian vision and tenacity. He was an intrinsically good person. His operative code word was endure – 忍.
From the time his sickness was first diagnosed three years earlier, to the afternoon of 6 January 2020 when he breathed his last, we walked closely with William and Susan, his wife of fifty years. Throughout that time, we had many private morning-coffees together. The couple was known for keeping fit, the regularity of their morning walks putting many of us to shame. Also, for more than fifty years in ministry, the energies of the indefatigable William knew no bounds. With that background, it was a long and painful process watching William’s strength on the wane, his body dwindling, his energy sapped. For him as for us, this whole thing – a devastating cancer – was never acceptable, always “why so sudden?” And so, even though we were privately hurting for him as the ravages of sickness took their inevitable toll, we never had the heart to let him sense how hard it was for us to witness the increasingly weakened state of this dear old friend. Privately, we were already going through an extended season of mourning long before the final “end”. But through it all, never was his full stature as the towering Christian that he was in the local faith community ever diminished in the eyes of people like ourselves who had known him well and appreciated the immense contributions he brought to the community. Instead, we were constantly amazed to behold, even after sickness had so severely depleted his body, and his steps occasionally became unsteady, so much was still intact in his spirit. William’s Christian vision, and the tenacious clarity with which he held it, subsisted to the very end.
1. Christian Vision and Tenacity
Christianity to William is so simple, at least in theory: we pray according to what we believe, and we act according to what we pray. Putting that into practice can be a lot more difficult of course. But William made it all look so easy, so natural. My long association with him tells me that three things, amongst others, motivated him.
First, is The Lord’s Prayer (Matt. 6:9-13; Lk. 11:2-4). This prayer is both Jesus’ personal way of praying and the prayer he taught his disciples. William’s active services to the faith community suggest that he had long understood the interior consciousness of the Lord Jesus transmitted to his followers through this prayer. The perspective of that consciousness is on building the kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven. Jesus’ prayer begins with the consciousness of his communion with God and all creation. He is aware of his solidarity and co-humanity with all (Our), and that he and us all are receiving life from a loving Ultimate Source (Father). In his prayer, Jesus does not begin on earth, and yet his kingdom-mission is on earth. All this clarifies the Christian calling for William and us: we are called to be conscious of Jesus’ consciousness, so that if we cultivate the same heaven-consciousness that Jesus had, it will drive us down to earth with the kingdom agenda of God and Christ.
Secondly, William had a special fondness for praying what is often referred to as “the Jesus Prayer”: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He even had a book on this prayer. It is in substance taken from the prayer of the humble and penitent publican, in contrast to the conceited and self-referential prayer of a Pharisee who had no need of God (Luke 18: 9-14). Of the penitent publican, Jesus spoke approvingly and declared that he went home justified. Saying the Jesus-Prayer often, William stayed conscious of his own inadequacies without God. Like the humble publican, he dialogued from the heart with God, as “a spiritual breathing of the soul”. Likewise, Thomas A Kempis’ Imitation of Christ was an all-time favourite of his.
Thirdly, William was also fond of the image of Mary of Bethany sitting at the feet of Jesus (Luke 10:39), listening carefully to the Word-made-flesh, interiorising the wisdom of God. Giving priority to that, Mary had done the one thing divinely categorized as necessary and had, in the approving words of the Lord, chosen the better part.
Keeping in constant touch with the Lord through prayers, maintaining a humble disposition, and opening a listening and welcoming heart for the Word – all this had crystallized in a deep spirituality in William. The resulting reality was that not only did William keep in touch with God throughout his adult Christian life, thereby seeing God’s will in kingdom-advancement on earth, but he tapped into the mercy, the strength and resources of God for his ministry.
As it is with people of deep spirituality, William was enabled to hear, to feel, and to take serious cognizance of the Lord’s agenda. This agenda, declared by Jesus at the synagogue upon his return “in the power of the Spirit” from his baptism and temptations, announced that Jesus’ mission from God was to bring good news to people who are not powerful in the world. These are the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18-19).
People may not know that William lived through serious poverty in early childhood. Had his mother not humbled herself and borrowed money from neighbours to pay the exam fees, William would not have sat his Form Five public examination. I can never forget a “simple” story he told us.
- He came home from school one day and there was “no rice to eat” (没饭好吃) for lunch. So he filled a cup with water, added a handful of water biscuits and some sugar and that served as lunch that day for a growing young man.
God, it seems, is not only fair, but had His own idea as to what to do for William. To those who have gone through poverty in their early years, God would bless them with grit – that powerful spirit of determination to face problems in life squarely, to tackle them logically, and to resolve them patiently. In the end, life would on reflection turn out to be truly so much more meaningful than if one had not experienced poverty and hardship. As poverty and hardship build character and grow heart, William grew up making the most of what life dished out to him, in Christian upright living and hard work and with compassion for the less fortunate in society. The desire to work towards providing educational opportunity for children of the Poor and proper in-depth formation for the Laity in the Church would always remain close to his heart.
In the process, well, the lack of funding did actually deny him the opportunity to study law in London even though he was accepted for enrolment, or to study in campus any formal degree course for that matter. Nor did he have a real opportunity to do serious theological studies in a Theology Faculty anywhere. But then, look, with grit and giftedness:
- William posted a brilliant career with the Royal Malaysia Police, got married and raised a family and his son Kevin becoming a London-trained accountant, built a nice home, took good care of his widowed-mother and younger siblings along the way, stood head and shoulders above everyone else in selfless services to the faith community, and lived a very decent life of which he had every reason to be proud.
- William became a first class organizer, the best the local church had ever known. His massive services covered both parish and diocesan levels, chairing councils and in trade-mark fashion, always systematically planned and effectively executed projects with accountability and foresight. His first major project was to chair the central organizing committee for the preparation of the first ever Eucharistic Congress in the Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei region in 1989 (“EC1989”), celebrated by the Archdiocese of Kuching.
- William read extensively. Proficient in English, he would speak and write a whole lot better than many who had had formal tertiary education. His insatiable appetite for learning and a keen eye on solid human development made him a truly educated man.
- William progressed from an assistant-to-priests as a young man to an adult Catholic with a clear vision for what the Church ought to be. He read theology books and official church documents at night (“They are tough to read and I may not understand everything, but I try to read as much as I can”) and was theologically more sound and articulate than many who had studied theology in colleges. He was a Catholic of substance.
- Having understood the kingdom-agenda of the Lord Jesus, William was the co-founder of several kingdom-promoting associations, one of which is the very impressive Lasallian Foundation. Members of this Foundation seriously seek to bring education to the last, the lost and the least. Up to the time of his passing, William remained an active consultant to this Foundation.
- In pursuit of both Bro. Albinus’ and his own wishes, William for a number of years until sickness intervened, actively promoted and saw to all the practical arrangements for the Theological Formation Programme for the Laity which I conduct.
For more than half a century till his passing at age 75 years, William obeyed and lived Jesus’ gospel of service, never bragging or claiming credit for services rendered.
Writing to William from London before he died in 1974, Bishop Karl (Charles) Reiterer, MHM, the Vicar Apostolic of Kuching at the time, thanked William for his commendable commitment and services to the faith community. He went on to remark that if there were a few more Catholics like William, the local church would be truly alive indeed.
And at William’s deathbed, Archbishop Simon Poh thanked him on behalf of the local church for his enduring commitment and services.
2. An Intrinsically Good Person and a Perfect Gentleman
Christian ministry starts at home, and William was a real family man. From the way he and Susan spoke so often and so fondly of their son Kevin, Lillian the daughter in law and the two grandchildren, it is delightfully clear to see that in old age, William was blessed with the genuinely caring consolation of his descendants.
The late Bro. Albinus was close to William, trusting him implicitly in all things, including his personal effects down to the purchase of a belt after a serious weight-loss.
In death, a person’s true legacy becomes apparent. William always dressed and conducted himself properly. A real gentleman of Christian compassion, he has earned respect all round. Remarks from his friends point so strongly in the direction of admiration for and regrets over the loss of an intrinsically good man. An ex-colleague remarked distinctly: “As a boss, he never got angry with us, nor ever scolded us.” And when a sister of his said to me at one of the funeral wakes that her brother was a really good person who took great care of his siblings, a “better man you cannot find”, I heard echoes of what I have had the privilege of knowing for a long time.
We were privileged to witness not only William’s kingdom-advancement works, but his work ethics as well. When the gentlemanly Fr. Nicholas Ng, who had ministered to William during his sickness, came to anoint him for the last time in the morning of 6th January, he said with a smile: “Well, as we all know about William, in everything that he did, there was a beginning and there was a proper ending (有头有尾). I would like to do the same for him.” And William’s dear old beloved Fr. Lawrence Chua, despite physical discomfort, came twice to the house during the brief few days when the end of an old friend was imminent. And when the greatly respected 91-year-old Archbishop Peter Chung, a planned-visit on whom by William and us was intervened by William’s illness, heard about William’s passing, he at once sent his condolences and a prayer for the repose of the soul of this faithful son of the Church.
Amazingly, in a way intelligible only in terms of divine grace and mercy, William died without struggle, without any physical pain (incredibly throughout the entire last three years as well), in peace and serenity, in the loving presence of family, relatives and friends.
3. Christian Endurance
William was a man of outstanding patience and non-violence. He was in every way a traditional Chinese with the best of the Chinese culture in him. For one who was not schooled in the Chinese classics, William’s proud literary collection included one particular scroll of Chinese calligraphy given him by the late Tan Shao Pai, a highly respected old Catholic of an earlier generation. That scroll carries a single word in Chinese –忍, translated as to endure.
William’s Christian endurance extended to several dimensions. At the level of social interaction, William displayed a very high threshold of endurance and tolerance, absorbing a great deal of “nonsense”, “disrespect” and “inconsiderate treatment” without the need to hit back. It is a quality quite unattainable by many, especially myself, and pretty awesome to behold. William’s virtue and spiritual maturity in this regard is all the more incredible when you realize that as a young man, his temper had once driven him to overturn a table in public.
At the level of Christian discipleship, I can truly say without reservation that William, much like his good friend and mentor Bro. Albinus before him, had “fought the good fight to the end”, “run the race to the finish”, and “kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7). Now the crown of uprightness awaited him. A delightful scene towards the very end is edged indelibly on our minds. As I sat at his bedside holding his right hand and talking to him about all this, even though he was too weak to open his eyes, he would open his mouth and utter the word “fight” in agreement, his left arm raised as high as his sapped energy could. It was a tear-filled and graceful time (for him and for me and others standing around) of mixed emotions of the joy of triumph and the inevitable sadness over the closure of a humble, and towering example of Christian life, service and leadership.
At the close of one life, there is bound to be regrets over some unfinished symphonies. Our shared regrets with William include planned trips to the Holy Land and China, and certain theology courses he had wanted me to teach the laity. Of the latter, he had repeatedly indicated his desire for a course on Ecclesiology. To mention that is to pay tribute to an untrained and yet sound theological mind which was constantly on a St Anselm faith seeking understanding trajectory, seeking better and deeper understanding of what it meant to be Church. And, I am leaving this till the last: in the last couple of years of his life, William was incessantly bothered by the fact that he could not realize his dream of setting up a pastoral institute for the in-depth formation of the Catholic laity in the Archdiocese of Kuching. A burden he carried like a cross, William’s vision was unmatched in the local church community. It certainly adds a different dimension to the spiritual comment by another old friend Fr. Cosmas Lee (the “brain” behind EC1989) on William’s death: “Full life. Good to go carrying the Cross.” In life and in death, William was a close follower of Jesus of Nazareth, the Suffering-Servant Messiah.
Lord, may William, your faithful servant-leader, rest in peace. Amen.
Copyright © Dr. Jeffrey & Angie Goh, January 2020. All rights reserved.
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