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First Hong Kong president of Serra speaks at international congress

ROME (SE): “We believe that this change is going to bring great graces for the work of Serra and that it will begin to involve Catholic youth,” said Thomas Wong Sze-pok, the 68th world president of Serra International and the first ever from Hong Kong.

“We pray that Serra communities will soon be ablaze, so that those considering the ordained priesthood will be encouraged to make the transition to discernment and seminary life more confidently,” Wong said in his opening address at a November 3 to 5 congress held in Rome.

The congress was organised to mark the 60th anniversary of the aggregation of Serra to the Pontifical Pastoral Ministry for Priestly Vocations by Pope Pius XII on 3 May 1951, and the 70th anniversary of the life of the pontifical ministry .

He said that keeping a perspective of the vocation to the priesthood is especially important in our world today.

“It cannot be considered to be one call among many others. In fact, on it depends the realisation and development of all other vocations. The priest represents Christ in his office as head pastor, priest and spouse,” he reflected.

Wong said that the theme of the congress, I have chosen you. Priests for our time, marks an important stage in the 76-year history of the Catholic lay organisation for the promotion of vocations to the priesthood, which began in Seattle, the United States of America (US), on 30 June 1935.

He pointed out that seminaries were flush with students at that time, as well as when Serra was aggregated by Pope Pius.

However, he noted that today this is not the case, but, “Serra has begun to recognise… that the quality of priests is, in fact, far more important than the quantity.”

He added, “Quality is found in the candidate’s response to the will of God and the way to really assist that from a Serran perspective is through prayer and suffering, alongside our apostolate.”

In giving a brief history of Serra, Wong recalled it began in 1934 with four businesspeople in Seattle having lunch together once a week to reflect on and exchange ideas on Catholic thought.

Then, with the encouragement of Archbishop Gerald Shaughnessy, it grew to registration with the diocese as an apostolic group and quickly spread to other parts of the US.

Although he noted that it carried the word international in its name, that probably meant little more at the time than the founders expected it would spread into Canada.

However, in the post World War II period, with the sudden worldwide mobility of US Catholics, Serra spread outside of north America, first to England in 1957, Italy in 1959 and then made its first Asian foundation in Hong Kong in 1963.

Wong said that much of this was possible because of a former colonel from the intelligence division of the US Army, Ralph Hauenstein, who today, at the age of 100, is the oldest living Serran in the world.

Hauenstein once told Wong that he personally brought the Serran Bell to Hong Kong for the charter ceremony, which saw the beginnings of Asia’s oldest chapter of the organisation.

Another doyen of the era was Jan Berbers, from the Netherlands. As a businessperson in Uruguay, he brought Serra the Montevideo in 1961 and later the Argentine in 1962, Paraguay in 1964, Spain in 1972 and finally his native Netherlands in 1990.

Others saw its foundation in Australia and New Zealand, then in this century in the Union of Myanmar, Bangladesh, India and Singapore.

Nevertheless, Wong questioned if it can truly be called a worldwide organisation when it still only has chapters in 45, or 23 per cent of the world’s 196 nations or sovereign entities. He notes that there is still a lot of expansion work to do. “If we are taking Christ’s missionary call seriously, it is essential that every last one of these countries has a Serra community present, encouraging and supporting the priesthood,” he told the congress.

While he admitted that this can sometimes be like trying to light a fire with wet leaves, he added that we must have confidence that God will not ignore our efforts.

However, Wong noted that the basic charter of Serra is to pray for vocations, to promote interest in priesthood in local parishes and identify and encourage possible candidates for the seminary, as well as offer spiritual and psychological support to priests.

He said that a recent initiative out of Singapore is Serra Unites!

“This is an effort to unite Serra throughout the world by reducing diverging and differing programmes and concentrating on the prayer for vocations,” he explained.

Wong said that this aspect is especially important, as during the 1970s and 1980s many Serra Clubs tended to take on the trappings and function of a Catholic Rotary Club.

“Also, while a large portion of our original members were retained, we failed dismally in attracting new members to replace them as they aged,” he reflected.

However, he noted that more recently, under the inspiration of the 1992 post synodal exhortation of Pope John Paul II, I will give you shepherds (Pastores Dabo Vobis), a realisation has grown within Serra that “all members of the Church, without exception, have the grace and responsibility to look after vocations.”

Wong said that this attributes a great importance to the presence of members of Serra in their local parishes, as the late pope said, “… special appreciation and encouragement should be given to groups which promote vocations, whose members make an important contribution by prayer and suffering offered up for priestly and religious vocations, as well as by moral and material support.”

Wong notes that the choice of a president from Asia is significant at this time in the history of Serra, as in the west, membership is both shrinking and aging, while on the Asian continent, it is going ahead in leaps and bounds.

He described the presence of Serra at World Youth Day in Madrid, Spain, in August this year, as reflecting a great consciousness of the organisation’s responsibility to reach out to young Catholic people.

He described the prayer cards distributed to the delegates as being a good connection between Serra and those considering their vocation in life and the words, “Always go forward, never look back,” engraved on a bell presented to the Spanish bishops are a symbol of the appreciation of the group to its Spanish patron, Blessed Junipero Serra.

The Franciscan priest was chosen as the patron of the organisation for the significant missionary work he undertook in California in the 1750s.

Father Serra was beatified in 1988.

He notes that there is still a lot of expansion work to do. “If we are taking Christ’s missionary call seriously, it is essential that every last one of these countries has a Serra community present, encouraging and supporting the priesthood

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