Few Catholic priests in the Philippines are “pure Chinese.”
There are many who have mixed Chinese and Filipino ancestry whose families practice the Catholic faith actively, so when they decided to enter the priesthood, the choice of vocation was seen as a blessing. Young Catholics from traditional Chinese families often find it difficult to explain the religious vocation to their families. There can even be fierce opposition to the whole idea of devoting one’s life to religion.
This is the situation I faced when I was choosing my vocation while doing college studies in the early 1990s.
Thankfully, I belonged to an organization called the Christian Life Community, and my spiritual director was my parish priest at Mary the Queen, Father Ben Sim. He not only guided me in my choice, but showed me with the example of his own life that a religious vocation was not unthinkable for “pure Chinese” like us.
He too came from a traditional Chinese family. His father’s initial opposition to his Jesuit vocation is legendary in Chinese circles.
In the 1950s, leaving one’s family to become a priest was a very radical decision, as it still is today in “pure” Chinese families.
But Father Ben had met Jesuits like Fr. Louis Papilla who were doing chaplaincy work at his university in Manila. They had been missionaries in China, and Father Ben benefitted from their counsel.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Father Ben took the road less traveled, and has had a very rich priestly ministry. Wherever he has been assigned, he has formed small groups of Christians who desire a deeper and more committed life of discipleship.
He is open to new ideas and is very dedicated to his projects, especially those that benefit the poor directly.
He demonstrated this at both Mary the Queen (Manila) and Sacred Heart (Cebu) parishes, where he has served as parish priest for the last 20 years or so.
As a shepherd of God’s people, Father Ben has a very gentle approach. He takes his homilies and points for prayer very seriously, because he knows his words can have a major impact in the lives of others. His wise counsel is sought by many, which is why he is fondly called “Angkong” (grandfather in Hokkien) by generations of students and parishioners he has guided. He is not a fiery speaker, but his words can heal and his deeds inspire.
In my own Jesuit vocation, I have always looked to him as a pioneer who blazed a trail for younger Tsinoys like myself to join him in taking the road less traveled. It has made all the difference in my life.
In Chinese culture, to reach the age of 80 is a special blessing. It is a special mark of longevity, of a blessed life that must be celebrated.
What an inspiration to see Father Ben celebrate this milestone while still serving as parish priest in Cebu, and personally supervising the Stella Maris project to bring livelihood to the survivors of Typhoon Yolanda in northern Cebu. May the Lord grant him good health and deep joy in his Jesuit vocation so that he can continue to inspire others. — First published in Tulay Fortnightly, Chinese-Filipino Digest 27, no. 3 (July 8-21, 2014): 8.