From mission work to priesthood

Fr Christopher James Lee (Fr Chris as he was popularly known), was well loved by many in Malaysia, thanks to his active mission work before he joined the ranks of clergy.

Jun 09, 2023

The late Fr Christopher Lee

At 5.45pm on June 14, 2022, I received a message that read “Rich … Fr Chris passed away!”. My first reaction was “Which Fr Chris?” The reply came almost instantly “Our friend Fr Chris Lee from Seremban”. That was when I read and re-read the message in disbelief. My friend Anne then forwarded me another message from Fr Chris’ aunt, Julie, that read “It’s true. Got the news about 5.20pm”. After that, I wasted no time informing all the people who knew him well, from the days before he joined the priesthood.

Fr Christopher James Lee (Fr Chris as he was popularly known), was well loved by many in Malaysia, thanks to his active mission work before he joined the ranks of clergy. When I listened to the many eulogies given during his wake, I realised most of them knew him only after he was ordained into the priesthood in 2009. During his short 13 years as priest, he had touched the lives of many, serving as assistant priest, parish priest and chancellor in the Diocese of Malacca Johore.

What many may not know is that Fr Chris had been actively living his priestly life, doing mission work long before that.

I first met Chris (as we knew him then) in the year 2000, when he was invited by the late Fr John Gnanapiragasam to join the team in conducting a Bible study programme named simply Biblical Journey in 44 weeks, based on the four volumes of the Journey, a study guide to the Old and New Testaments prepared by Bishop Marcel Gervais of Canada. Fr John had put together a team of 12, comprising two priests, two religious and the rest were laity, of whom Chris and I were involved.

Due to the success of the first batch of almost 300 attendees who completed the programme at four separate venues, Fr John continued with this course for the next four years at three different locations each year. It was made possible because Chris had stepped forward and had taken on many of the sessions held on weekday nights, and was able to travel to these locations. In total, the five years Bible study course had reached more than 2,000 plus participants.

Subsequently, Fr John, who was then the Archdiocesan Pastoral Institute (API) Director, also initiated several other programmes where Chris played a key role, either as one of the facilitators, a speaker or simply some resource personnel. Among them were an archdiocesan catechist formation and some formations organised by API.

During the period from 2000 till 2005, when he submitted his application to join the priesthood to Bishop Paul Tan, SJ (the then bishop of Malacca Johore), he was literally “working everyday” in God’s vineyard, giving talks, conducting camps, retreats and formation to many groups who were constantly inviting him. The catechist groups were regularly calling upon him to conduct First Holy Communion and Confirmation camps. The Catholic Charismatic Renewal groups would invite him as speaker for many of their CCR gatherings. The youth groups would invite him to conduct youth camps or formations. And, the Catholics in the Workplace group, a group of Catholics working in the KL City Centre that meets during lunch time every week, considered him their resident speaker.

Whenever he had late night sessions in Kuala Lumpur or Petaling Jaya, he would call to ask to stay in my house. So much so I just gave him a set of keys, and he would come by anytime, whenever he needed a place to stay the night. He would then share with me his session for that day or week, and then would be off again the next day.

At numerous occasions I asked him how he was able to sustain himself, to be able to do all that he did. After all, he had a car to maintain, petrol, toll and parking to pay, and had to take care of his daily meals whenever he was not home in Seremban (which was often). He smiled and simply replied “The Lord provides”, and did not elaborate further.

Chris’ mission work was not confined to the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur only, as he had, on occasion, been invited to give talks or camps in the other dioceses in Malaysia. On one occasion, the late Cardinal Soter Fernandez (then archbishop) had suggested to Charles Bertille, who was then with Fondacio, to “take Christopher under your wings in any of your activities”. Charles had, at that time, received an invitation from the Bishops Conference in Myanmar to conduct an evaluation of their diocese and its project in the northern Shan state.

Upon completing his 10 days’ mission work in Myanmar, I recall Chris telling me how poor the people there were, and how he lived among them, sleeping and eating whatever was offered him. It was truly an eye opener for him, and he shared how simple and full of joy the people there were.

It wasn’t totally a surprise to the many who knew him when he announced that his application to join the priesthood had been accepted. For me, it was with mixed feelings, somewhat. I was happy that he was finally being accepted into a vocation that he had been living all the while. Sad at the same time, because I had “lost” a partner whom I had worked well with, whenever we gave sessions, talks and camps together. Of course, my loss was personal, while the people in the Diocese of Malacca Johore gained a priest who went on to greater works.

Re-reading the obituary notice by Bishop Bernard Paul on June 15, 2022, Chris had indeed moved on to greater works between the time of his ordination to priesthood on Aug 31, 2009 till his sudden demise 13 years later. The many offices he held, the ministries and positions he was responsible for, truly shows how much Fr Chris Lee was valued as a late vocation priest.

(Richard Chia has been actively involved in Church since young. He held full-time corporate jobs while serving in ministries and groups at various church levels for the past four decades.)

Total Comments:1

Rienzi Josephfb Paliath [email protected]
He was pragmatic and caring and went out of the way to help parishioners in their needs! I remember personally when my sister passed on last year, he was the only priests who offered to do the funeral mass on a Monday which is designated to be day off for all priests! Very accommodating of him and during Covid paranoia he heard our confesions and said mass for just 4 or 5 of us!