A stroke of genius

Priest, medical doctor, scientist, a university professor in Bioethics, and artist are some of the roles attributed to Fr Joseph Tham LC.

Jan 20, 2023

Fr Joseph Tham LC, takes Archbishop Julian Leow on a tour around his art exhibition at The Gallery, Sunway University on January 9, 2023. Looking on are Sunway University Provost Prof Dr Abhi Veerakumarasivam and Terry Mahoney.

By Gwen Manickam

Priest, medical doctor, scientist, a university professor in Bioethics, and artist are some of the roles attributed to Fr Joseph Tham LC.

Recently in town for his first local art exhibition, Beauty of the Universe, the Romebased priest showcased 45 works of art at the Gallery, Sunway University, from January 9 to 14. Proceeds from the sale of the artworks will benefit the education-based charities of the Jeffrey Cheah Foundation in Malaysia and the Regina Apostolorum Foundation, a Hong Kong-registered charity, both of which worked with the university and lawyer cum philanthropist, Joan Foo Mahony, to curate the showing.

On hosting the exhibition, Sunway Education CEO, Professor Dato Dr Elizabeth Lee said, “Given that Chinese New Year celebrations are upon us, we believe the opportunity to host this remarkable Beauty of the Universe exhibition would be most topical, enlightening, and interesting to many, especially in its uniquely inspired Chinese culture and art style.”

Kicking off the inaugural event, Archbishop Julian Leow was given a sneak peek of Fr Joseph’s Chinese brush paintings, calligraphy, and seal carvings.

A Hong Kong native and cradle Catholic, Fr Joseph said his love for art blossomed at a young age, and at 12, he started classes to hone his techniques and skills.

Three years later, his family moved to Toronto, Canada, where he continued his secondary education and fine-tuned his skills in Chinese painting. He later majored in Mathematics before becoming a medical doctor.

As a medical student, Fr Joseph went on missions to Kenya and Tanzania for two months each. He learnt more about the need out there and decided that after paying off his college debts, he’d become a missionary doctor.

The calling to join the priesthood was also becoming stronger, but he resisted it.

“I still wanted to be a doctor. I wanted to help with what I was good at — being a doctor. But I realised God wanted me to give Him free rein. It was like God telling me, ‘I want you, and I will tell you what you will be doing’.

“Previously, it was ‘I want to do this, and I want God to bless me in what I want to do’. The other option was to surrender myself, trust in Him and be His instrument — be it as a medical doctor, missionary doctor, or priest.”

Fr Joseph chose the latter, but it was a struggle to surrender completely to God.

He gave up an illustrious career as a medical doctor and joined the seminary for the Legionaries of Christ (LC) order in the United States at 29. A year before joining the seminary, he began classes on calligraphy and seal carving.

When asked how his Asian parents took the news, as he is the only son and second of five children, Fr Joseph was momentarily silent. It seemed like he was transported back to the raw pain of being shunned by his father, who opposed his decision to join the priesthood. His father cast him out of the family and stopped going to church.

Fr Joseph’s mother always prayed for a vocation in the family, but it was difficult when it was her only son who heard the calling. She struggled to deal with her husband too as Fr Joseph was suddenly persona non grata in the family.

“It was very tough on me. I talked to God asking, ‘I am doing something so good, why is this happening?’ It was also difficult for my spiritual director/superiors to understand what I was going through as it was very Chinese/oriental. They brushed it aside as something light, something every seminarian goes through. They didn’t have insight into the ancient Confucian theory that one of the two crimes deserving capital punishment is when you go against your father.

“Not being understood by my biological family and my religious family, and being the only Chinese there, I felt very alone amidst the first few years of seminary life.

“During the first seven years in the seminary, I spent time meditating on the Fatherhood of God and what it meant. It was useful to understand that fatherhood on earth is not a reflection of the Fatherhood of God. It’s the other way around — God’s Fatherhood is the perfect example of fatherhood, our earthly fatherhood is only a reflection.”

After his novitiate, Fr Joseph moved to Italy to complete his pastoral studies.

“When I joined the seminary, I had to give up my biological family, any future family I might have, and my profession, but the hardest part for me was giving up my art.” During the 10 years of his seminary formation, Fr Joseph didn’t work on his art. He said the lack of time and the fact that the American and Italian formators did not understand Chinese art contributed.

Before his ordination, Fr Joseph’s father was very ill, and the seminarian was allowed to visited him. They chatted and somewhat patched up before his passing.

Upon his ordination in Italy, Fr Joseph was made a professor and spent the last 18 years in Rome in academia. The former Dean of the School of Bioethics at the Regina Apostolorum Pontifical University in Rome said, although he could have taken up art again after his ordination, he didn’t make the time for it except to dabble a little during summer breaks.

Art revisited
A decade ago, when Fr Joseph began visiting his homeland Hong Kong again, it re-ignited his artistic background but as a university professor, he still didn’t have the time to indulge in his art.

It was only five years ago when his health was affected, that he made drastic changes to his lifestyle by keeping to strict working hours and having a better work-life balance.

“As priests and religious generally don’t have a nine to five work schedule, they seldom have downtime, and it’s not good. When I made time for myself, I became more productive,” said the professor who speaks Cantonese, Italian, English, Spanish, and a little Mandarin.

On what inspires his art, he said after the long break and becoming a priest, he realised his vision of what was once considered beautiful changed.

“Now, I use my art to try and express my interiority. I use the artistic mediums I am good at to express my love for God, my inner state, and my spirituality. I started to create more on the Christian faith but in a Chinese way, and I feel that bridge is quite original.” It was an opportunity for Fr Joseph to enculturate faith in the local culture.

Among the different styles, Fr Joseph is trained in one school of painting, where he only does landscapes, plants, and animals. “In Chinese art, along the way, you have to write/sign your name or a message on the painting, and I found my calligraphy was bad, so I began working on it to improve. Likewise, the seals.

“Now I find inspiration in calligraphy and carving seals. I find them more challenging. Although they are simpler, the simpler something is, the harder it is. When something is complicated, you can cover it up but, when it’s simpler, it’s technically harder.

“For the Chinese, including the Emperors, calligraphy has always been the highest and most precious form of art.”

In Fr Joseph’s book Art for God, Artworks and Spiritual Reflections, he says while religious art is accepted, art as an expression of spirituality is still not fully integrated into the Church. Today his main line of work involves teaching, research, and writing in areas of Bioethics. He has also authored and edited numerous articles and books.

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