This Saturday, on the Feast of St Mary MacKillop, Archbishop Peter A Comensoli will ordain seminarian Alexander Chow as a deacon for the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne. In the lead up to his ordination, and as part of National Vocations Awareness Week, Melbourne Catholic caught up with Alex to learn about his journey so far.
You worked as a Chemical Scientist for 20 years before entering the seminary. What led you to that profession?
I just love chemistry! I was originally from Brunei and came to Australia when I was 17. When I was in Years 11 and 12 in New South Wales, my chemistry teacher made it all so interesting for me. I got into Monash University so I moved to Melbourne and did three years of Electrical and Computer System Engineering – and I hated it! I was passing and getting the grades that I needed but didn’t see myself as an electrical engineer, so I switched over to a double major in Chemistry and Applied Mathematics (Honours) and then did my Master's in Chemistry.
When I switched over from engineering to chemistry it was all a breeze! I was passionate about it. I told my parents and they just said, ‘Why didn't you tell us earlier?’ They were very kind and they just told me to pursue my interests. My twin brother Albert, who now lives in New Zealand, also studied Electrical and Computer System Engineering and he finished it!
What was it like to grow up in Brunei?
I mean, that's my home—I was born there and it was foundational to my spiritual life. Brunei is an Islamic country where Catholics are a minority so that gave me a desire to pursue my faith even more. My dad was originally a Taoist but about four years after marrying mum, who is Catholic, he converted to Catholicism. She witnessed the faith to my dad. And I think he became more Catholic than mum! (laughs)
My parents were always active in church and I guess that’s the example they showed me. I think the turning point was when they that they joined the Charismatic Renewal in Brunei. In Brunei, Confirmation is done when you’re 14 years old, so you’re almost a young man already. Our bishop was also part of the Charismatic Community so we did a ‘Life in the Spirit’ seminar which was six or seven weeks of talking about the gifts of the Holy Spirit. We were prayed over and then received [the Sacrament of] Confirmation. It was amazing – and in Brunei of all places, which is a predominantly Muslim country!
Mum and dad were very much involved in the Charismatic community as well as in the ‘mainstream’ Church. My dad was chairman of the parish council and on the school board, while mum loves singing so she was in the church choir. I started serving at Mass when I was eight or nine years old and I remember feeling very comfortable around the altar even when I was young. I guess that feeling [of a calling to the priesthood] was already there, but I put it into the background and felt like I wasn’t worthy enough. I continued to pursue in my studies and then came to Australia and got my degree. But all the while I guess there was already an inkling there.
When I finished my studies in 1995, I returned to Brunei and began working. My first job was in Malaysia and then after a year I got transferred to Kolkata in India. The transfer only lasted three months but it was impactful. Brunei is a rich country so we don’t usually see poverty like that in Kolkata. I think it was one of those experiences that the Lord was using to help me to see the extreme poverty that so many people experience in the world.
As a scientist, have you ever had moments in your study or work where you’ve found it challenging to reconcile aspects of science and faith?
The deeper you get in science, and especially in chemistry, you begin to realise that the more you know, the more you don’t! God has given me a scientific mind and it is both a hurdle and a great thing. It’s a hurdle in the sense that I question everything in my faith, and I think that's one of the reasons why I was delayed in responding to my call. As a scientist, there are procedures and equations and faith does not work that way. I found that a little bit difficult to overcome, and the Lord has been very patient with me.
I see science and religion not at loggerheads with each other but rather science as a tool to help us understand God's work in nature. Since the beginning of time, God – who is timeless – has installed all these phenomena in the universe and we as scientists have the responsibility to make these phenomena easily understood by the human brain. And there are thousands of phenomena in the universe that still need to discovered by scientists and that’s why science is always growing. I think as good research scientists, we should not be too prideful and say, ‘we know this for a fact’ and then ignore all the unknowns, because that will stop us from progressing to know the truth.
St John Paul II said faith and reason are like two wings of a bird – you need both intellect and faith. We have our intellect and reason to explain our faith and what we believe, but in the end, Jesus will ask us to walk out of the boat and onto the water – to walk with him and to trust.
What made you finally ‘get out of the boat’? And did you experience any ‘false starts’ along the way?
After so many years of running away from my calling, I’d say I finally decided to do it because of my sense of gratitude towards God.
I’ve experienced life in different countries; I've worked in different parts of Africa, the Middle East and Amsterdam. I felt like I had everything. But peace was still not there… that sense of ‘wanting more’ was still present. It's like what St Augustine said: ‘You have made us for yourself, Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in You.’ St Augustine was a late vocation too.
Having worked for 20 years, I still felt like I didn’t have the peace that Jesus promises. I think responding to the call of God—the call that God put into our heart—is when our deepest desire is fulfilled. And this is very contrary to the secular world. The secular world says: ‘be yourself’ – but in a very individualistic, egocentric way and focused on personal rights. But to be yourself in the church is to be what God originally made you to be. And for me, it’s the call to the priesthood.
This is my second time in the seminary. The first time I left Beda College (in Rome, where Alex is currently studying), the rector said to me, ‘Alex, the door of Beda is always open to you should you change your mind.’ That was such a lovely thing for me to hear because it reflected the unconditional love of God. God is always there; it is we who turn away from him.
The Sacrament of Reconciliation is so important because it is not about being judged but it is a healing balm to our wounds – with God, within ourselves and with others. All the sacraments help us in the way of holiness; they’re not just routines or rituals we go through as Catholics, but they actually have effects on our lives when our hearts are willing to open up to the grace of the Holy Spirit.
What does it mean for you to be ordained to the diaconate during this uncertain time of the pandemic?
I think everything is uncertain and changing all the time but I believe my call has been constant. God has given me a vocation to the priesthood – to be closer to Jesus Christ and to know his love. For other people it could be through single life, married life, as a teacher, as a doctor. Becoming a deacon is just a step on this journey toward priesthood but of course priesthood is not the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal is to be with Jesus Christ.
I was hoping that my sister could be a reader at the Mass but I’ll have the Archbishop to represent the local Church of Melbourne. And with the live telecast at least my mum in Brunei can watch it and my brother in New Zealand.
I guess having the ordination in the midst of the chaos of COVID-19 is a good indication of the steadfast love of God and his faithfulness to his people. And as long as we sincerely seek him out, as in Jeremiah 29:11, he'll never fail us and that's one of the things I’ve really seen in my life.
‘For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me, and pray and come to me I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me if you seek me with all your heart. I will let you find me, says the Lord.’ (Jeremiah 29: 11)
Finally, do you have a favourite prayer or hymn?
'Alive Again' by Matt Maher. Some of the lyrics are taken from St Augustine’s writings in his Confessions. As a late convert, he wrote this treatise on how his life had been completely changed by God. In the lyrics of Matt Maher’s song, we hear: You called and You shouted / Broke through my deafness and Late have I loved You / You waited for me / I searched for you / What took me so long?
Matt Maher put the melody to it but the words are like that of St Augustine’s. I guess that’s why I like that song because it reflects my own life situation – why did it take me so long to answer God's call?
But I think with God, nothing is too late. It’s about your heart in the end. It might take ages, but God is patient with us.