In Khurda during Novitiate, 1991
My name is Valan Arasu Arockiaswamy. I'm a Catholic priest and a missionary of SVD (Societas Verbi Divini or the Society of the Divine Word) » in Hong Kong.
I was born in 1968 in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, South India. I am the eldest of five children. My parents are very devout Catholics. The majority of the villagers, about five hundred households, are Hindus. Only about sixty families are Catholic Christians. My village has two small churches - Saint Francis Xavier and Our Lady of Good Health and a Catholic Primary School in which I studied until I was ten.
My childhood memories are fresh and alive in my mind. I remember working on our farmlands before and after school every day and going to Saint Francis Xavier Church for evening prayers. I remember walking barefoot about eight kilometers through the woods and rough roads to our Parish Church on Sundays.
I remember fetching water from our village ponds every day and carrying it on my head to my house. I remember visiting regularly the three Hindu temples in my village but never praying in them. I remember merrily taking part in all Hindu festivals but never worshipping their gods. I remember the Hindus attending our church services and praying to our Lord Jesus and asking for favors through the intercessions of our Blessed Mother Mary and other saints.
I was too small to know and understand the differences between Christianity and Hinduism and yet I could feel the difference even though it remained a mystery to me until my ordination. I remember our parish priests visiting our village only on special occasions to celebrate the Holy Eucharist for us. I remember looking intently at them and wanting to be like them. I remember being altar server and praying that one day God would make me a priest. I remember my teachers encouraging me to study well and become a priest to serve God and our Catholic Church. I remember wearing new white clothes and receiving Jesus Christ on my tongue for the first time.
My desire to become a priest was burning like a fire in me as I moved on to high school. But unfortunately my parents sent me to the village of my grandmother which had no Catholic schools. I was put in a public school where I missed reading biblical stories and listening to Catholic catechism teachers. Nonetheless I continued to visit the village church for evening prayers and attend Holy Masses on Sundays. Looking back now I realize God was working mysteriously as always in my life.
Campus of my Alma Mater - the Institute of Philosophy, Mysore, India
After the first year of high school in 1979 I was home for the summer vacation during which one of my relatives was ordained a priest. He is a religious missionary priest like me belonging to the SVD Missionaries. He is a simple and faithful servant of God and a great missionary. He is working among the poor and tribal people of Andhra Pradesh in South India. With his help and support I got the opportunity to complete high school in a Catholic boarding school in 1983 and join the Society of the Divine Word in Tiruchi, an important industrial and educational town in central Tamil Nadu. To some extent I think my stay in the boarding school for four years laid the foundation for my interest in spiritual matters such as attending Holy Mass every day, saying prayers before and after meals and reading the scriptures. After completing three years of secondary education in 1986, twelve of my classmates and I were sent to Indore in Central India to join 104 SVD seminarians from other parts of India for one year of training on three areas Spirituality, Integration and Studies. In 1987 I was one of the 42 students selected for undergraduate studies and further training.
Profession of my Final Vows in the Society of the Divine Word, 1995
In 1990 I graduated with a BA degree in English Literature from Saint Philomena's College and a BA in Philosophy from the SVD institute in Mysore, a South Indian city noted for its palaces and festivities. During the three years of graduate studies, like everyone else, I was tested in and for academic skills, leadership qualities, mental strength, emotional intelligence, spiritual maturity, physical fitness, missionary zeal, religious life and so on. After a long process of examination and evaluation in June 1990, I was, together with twenty three of my classmates, admitted to a formation program in religious life called Novitiate. In that one year of novitiate I spent much time studying the Constitutions of the Society of the Divine Word, discerning my call to religious life, praying and preparing for my profession of vows of poverty, celibacy and obedience. In June 1991 I professed my first vows and received the white cassock. From 1991 to 1995 I studied theology in the Divine Word Seminary in Pune, one of the largest metropolitan cities with higher education facilities in India.
1995 has been the most important year in my life so far. On January 29 in the presence of my beloved parents and friends, I gratefully made my perpetual vows and became a full-fledged member of the Society of the Divine Word. On February 2, along with 14 of my friends, I was ordained a deacon. On May 29 before a large congregation, I was ordained a priest in the Immaculate Conception Church in Bangalore. On the morning of 30th May, I celebrated my first Holy Mass.
With my beloved family at First Holy Mass on May 30, 1995
On October 18 I arrived in Hong Kong. The first few months were marked by culture shock, language barrier, prejudice, discrimination, loneliness, frustration, misunderstanding and illness. But I found strength in the Lord our God who had called me and sent me here to serve Him. I was reminded of Psalm (73:26), "My heart and my flesh are pining away: my heart's rock, my portion, God forever!" I also found comfort in the Bible verse on my ordination card from Isaiah (49:16), "Look, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands, your ramparts are ever before me."
I learned to speak, read and write (still learning though) Chinese and Cantonese for two years at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and, on week-ends I assisted at Saint Benedict's Church in Sha Tin. It was an opportunity to gradually familiarize myself with the culture, lifestyle, language, people, food, attitude, habits, and environment. On January 1, 1998 I began my first assignment as the assistant parish priest of Saint Edward's Parish, Lam Tin. I enjoyed a cordial relationship with the parish priest Father Brian Lawless, my confrere from Ireland. We had no helpers. We lived on the 5th floor of our secondary school staff quarters. We took turns cooking our own meals every day. Father Lawless often prepared very simple but tasty traditional Irish food whereas I cooked quite enjoyable but less spicy Indian dishes.
With Bishop Joseph Zen and Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion of Saint Edward's parish, Lam Tin, 2002
We used to invite all the church groups regularly to our presbytery for dinner. It was hugely a fun experience cooking for so many people. The parishioners were very respectful, kind and generous to me. One of the most memorable experiences of my parish life was breakfast with the elderly in a dim sum restaurant every morning after Holy Mass. I also liked to visit and assist the sick and the elderly, either at home, in hospitals, or in nursing homes. From June 2002 to June 2003 I served as the parish priest and then went to England for further studies. I graduated with a master's degree in educational management from Brunel University in 2004 and another master's degree in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages from the Institute of Education, University of London, in 2005.
Part of my seafarers' visit routine is climbing a rope ladder three stories above the ocean onto a ship.
I returned to Hong Kong in 2006. From 2006 to 2008 I worked as an English teaching assistant in Sing Yin Secondary School. Since 2008 I have been working as Catholic port chaplain for the AOS (Apostleship of the Sea) also known internationally as Stella Maris. The AOS in Hong Kong, together with other Christian groups particularly the Anglican Mission to Seamen, German and Danish Seamen's Mission cares for spiritual, moral and physical well-being of visiting seafarers regardless of their nationality, race or creed. I am the seventh chaplain but the first SVD missionary priest assigned to this ministry.
Visiting seafarers on their ships is my first and primary task. I visit the ships at anchorage three, four days a week in every type of weather usually between 9am and 4pm. I make approximately 1,500 ship visits per year. The seamen are away from their families for six to twelve months at a time. Many of them suffer from stress, loneliness, depression, spiritual deprivation and exploitation. So the Missions to Seafarers provide them with newspapers, books, magazines, prayer cards, Bibles, rosaries, films, recorded news, sports and special programs. Telephone cards are made available for them to call their families and friends. Upon request, I conduct ecumenical prayer services, Holy Mass and memorial services for the seafarers who die at sea. Regardless of their religion, many share their personal stories or any problems they might be encountering on board the ship, and request a blessing before I leave the vessel. Most of the seafarers gratefully appreciate my visit and assistance. They offer me food and drinks and whatever they could in return.
Of course not every day is a good day. Some days I return home disappointed. Because of my status as a Catholic priest, race, color and nationality some crew are lukewarm towards me or turn down my visit. I also regularly visit the seafarers in hospitals. Besides, I pray and share my faith in our Lord Jesus Christ with the community attending Holy Mass every day at the seamen's center. When I look back at my life, I realize God has already uniquely prepared the path for me and guides me every step of the way. I give thanks to God for so many wonderful people who support me, love me, comfort me, encourage me and pray for me. And also I give thanks to God for all that I have and all that I am, especially for my eighteen years of religious life and priesthood. I feel so blessed, happy and contented.
Quote SVD Constitution
As members of the Society of the Divine Word, we consider it our duty to proclaim the word of God to all, to bring new communities into being within the people of God, to foster their growth and to promote communion among them as well as with the whole Church. We work first and foremost where the gospel has not been preached at all or only insufficiently and where the local church is not viable on its own. Other tasks must be oriented towards these primary aims.
Last updated: August 30, 2013