Seminarian Alfred Tong – My Vocation Journey

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood”. I never knew these were the beginnings of prophetic words in the poem “The Road Not Taken” when I had to learn it by heart as a Year 11 English student. Nor did I understand its implications for my life ahead. How did Robert Frost’s final decision to take “the road less traveled” make “all the difference” for him? I wasn’t one to enjoy literature, so at that time I thought nothing much of it.

After leaving school I went to the University of Otago, graduating with a pharmacy degree. But then I was less certain about myself than I had ever been in my life. I kept on asking God ‘why’ my life was not as prestigious as other people was saying it will be? One of the comforts I looked forward to during the week was doing music ministry in the Sunday 7 pm student mass at the Catholic Church near the campus.

Struggling to cope with low self-esteem and walking across the campus one day, I met Fr Mark.  Having asked how I was, I began to recite to him everything that was wrong with my world. I felt like failure personified. But it was a very different message I got from him. He said a prayer and gave me a blessing. Initially surprised by his response, I soon felt and knew I was loved again.

At the student mass, I soon met a US exchange student who loved ‘Ignatian Spirituality’. “What’s that hocus-pocus?” were my initial words to him. But this was my first experience that God didn’t expect me to be perfect. If He did, why would He still love me?

I was then approached by a lay chaplain whom I did music ministry with. We had an ordinary conversation, until something made her say to me “I don’t know, you probably will make something great out of your pharmacy career, but have you ever considered ‘The Vocation’”.

But it wasn’t until I attended a Chrism Mass in Wellington a few years later, that the notion of priesthood felt tangible, when the priests of the Archdiocese renewed their vocational promises. Remembering the love I received from Fr Mark and the parishioners, I felt a niggle to respond. Here I am, so tired from walking under the midday sun, only to find myself like the Samaritan Woman, sitting at the Well. Jesus has “told me everything that I ever did”. (Jn 4:29).

To see my limitations, yet find that I am more than my limitations, has been a true blessing. To give love, and to receive love, is the greatest vocation anyone can have – for the dying man I wheel-chaired around at the clinic, for the young person struggling to come to terms with an ill family member. This is something I am privileged to be in formation for. To recognise and walk with my joys and pains in others, and theirs in me. I ask Jesus at times: “isn’t this impossible to do all the time?” Jesus replies “Yes – it is challenging. It is the Road Not Taken. But, has that made all the difference for you?”

“Take Lord, and receive all my liberty;

my memory, my understanding, and my entire will,

all I have and call my own.

You have given all to me. To you, Lord, I return it.

Everything is yours; do with it what you will.

Give me only your love and your grace,

that is enough for me”

– St Ignatius of Loyola.

Alfred Tong is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Wellington at Holy Cross Seminary in Auckland.