Deacon Augustine Lee Yee Heng
If there’s a song that could aptly describe the life and vocation journey of Augustine Lee, it would certainly have to be the hymn One Day At A Time, Sweet Jesus for that is how this young man has travelled, and continues to travel, on the journey of life … one day at a time, with God as his guide.
“From a young age, I never really had any specific ambition. Unlike the other children, I never really gave much thought to what I wanted to become when I grew up,” said Augustine. However, whenever he was required to state ‘future career’ while filling up forms in school, he always wrote ‘Priest or Religious Brother.’
“This was not because I had a desire to become a priest or religious brother back then, but it was a ‘job’ which I could easily identify with, having grown up in a church environment as my mother worked as a cook and house keeper for the late Fr Decrooq,” said Augustine.
In many ways, says Augustine, his mother did play an important role, albeit unknowingly in establishing a firm faith foundation for him and his two brothers. “My maternal grandparents were converts to the Catholic faith and my mother who was born in China was baptised and raised as a Catholic. Though it must have been difficult for them to practise the faith back then in a communist-run country, my mother practises, and continues to practise her faith, to the best of her ability. After coming to Malaysia and having children of her own, she ensured that all of us received proper faith formation even though it meant taking us all the way from Sentul (where we were living then) to Kepong for Catechism in Mandarin and to attend the Mass in Mandarin,” said Augustine who is the middle child in his family.
Describing himself as an ‘average’ student with no particular passion for any specific sports or activities, Augustine was happy to just blend in and be a part of the crowd. Nevertheless, his friendly demeanour and helpful nature soon saw him being sought after for church activities. Before long, Augustine was involved in the parish youth activities, altar server and eventually became the Chinese-speaking liturgical coordinator for the parish.
Augustine believes that the initial seeds of vocation were planted in his heart when he attended a seminar organised for the Peninsular Malaysia Chinese-speaking Apostolate in Cameron Highlands. “The theme for the seminar was on prayer and we were encouraged to pray for vocations, and to discern as to whether God was calling us to join the priesthood or religious life. Soon this became my daily prayer. However after some time I told myself that I would change my prayer and just ask the Lord to lead me in any direction He pleased.
“My second gentle nudge came from Fr Philip Tan, CDD. Since the Mandarin-speaking community of the Church of Jesus Caritas in Kepong had to depend on the CDD Fathers to help out in our parish for the Masses in Mandarins, he told me, ‘As you can see, there is a need for more Mandarin-speaking priests in the diocese. So why don’t you become a priest?’ My immediate reply was that the studies for priesthood would take a long time and I just couldn’t imagine myself studying for seven long years. However, he told me to step forward and I gave an assurance that I would think about it,” said Augustine who had already worked his way up the corporate ladder from office boy to Personal Assistant to the Managing Director of a Housing Developer within 12 years.
During this time Augustine spoke to his mother about his intention and she readily gave her blessings. “In fact, I recalled then how when we were young, a visiting priest had asked my mother to offer one of her sons to the Lord and my mum without any hesitation whatsoever, told the priest that the Lord could have all of her three sons.”
There is a saying that goes, ‘third time lucky’ … and it was the third nudge that finally changed the entire course of Augustine’s life. On two previous occasions Archbishop Murphy Pakiam (who was then the auxiliary bishop) of Kuala Lumpur came to celebrate Mass at the Church of Jesus Caritas Kepong and both times he had asked Augustine to consider joining the priesthood. “I was prepared with an answer if the bishop were to ask me a third time,” said Augustine and true to form, on his third visit, Archbishop Pakiam (who had since been installed as the Archbishop of Kuala Lumpur) once again encouraged this young man to join the priesthood.
“Even then I was still not too keen and in an attempt to throw a wrench into the works, I told Archbishop Pakiam that I was prepared to enter the seminary provided I could be sent to Taiwan. I seriously doubted that the Archdiocese would be willing to send a diocesan seminarian to Taiwan. To my surprise, the archbishop told me that he would think about it. Still being ‘Doubtful Thomas’, I told myself that was the end of it and now I would be left in peace,” said Augustine.
Little did Augustine know that God had already set His plans in motion and before long, Fr Joachim Tan received a call from the Archbishop to inform him that they would be sending Augustine to the pre-seminary in Johor Bahru and so on November 2, 2003, Augustine was enrolled in the pre-seminary for a period of 10 months before embarking on his journey to the priesthood formation at the Taiwan Catholic Regional Seminary.
Augustine admits that his first year was filled with struggles. “I found it difficult adjusting to a life as a student. The academic system in Taiwan is so different from that of the seminary in Malaysia and I found myself having to juggle my time for studies with the ministries that we had been assigned to, in the initiation year itself. I was under tremendous pressure and wanted to give it all up and return home. One day I found myself in the chapel and in front of the Blessed Sacrament. Almost on the verge of tears, I told God that I wanted to go back. I did not want to continue and as I prayed, I felt as if a heavy burden had been suddenly lifted from me. I was filled with a sense of freedom and happiness and I knew then that the Lord would never forsake me and would continue to guide me and watch over me as I face whatever new challenges may come my way in my life as a priest,” he added. -- By Patricia Pereira