Deacon William “Billy” Chen
Christ “frees us from the prison of our shame”
Q. How did you discover your vocation?
A. How did a young boy born to Buddhist parents on the island of Borneo end up being a Catholic deacon for the Archdiocese of Galveston-Houston? This is the story of how God showed me the way to find him.
I grew up in Malaysia. My parents sent me to St. Joseph Catholic school, run by Irish [religious] brothers, so that I could learn English. This is where I first heard of Jesus. However, I was interested in becoming a doctor, so learning more about Jesus faded into the background for a time. The seed was planted but it had not yet blossomed. At age fifteen, in pursuit of my dream to be a doctor, my parents sent me to Houston, where my uncle practiced as a doctor. I felt a sense of adventure and excitement, but yet I was as calm as if someone was guiding me.
A few times in high school and college, I felt a longing for something deeper, but I didn’t yet realize what that longing was. I studied at the University of Houston, where I met the woman who would become my wife, Kelly, a cradle Catholic. She became the “angel” to bring me a step closer to God. I attended Sunday Mass with her and felt drawn to its rituals. Another person entered my life who would be instrumental in forming my faith: a young Redemptorist priest named Fr. Byron Miller, who, at that time, served at Holy Ghost Catholic Church and spent many evenings talking with me about the Catholic faith. On July 20, 1993, I was baptized and confirmed by Fr. Byron, and I received holy Communion for the first time. Fr. Byron presided at our wedding and later was at my diaconate ordination. Again, I had a sense of a guiding hand upon my shoulder.
I began working as a medical doctor. Kelly and I were blessed with three children, and we settled into family life. For a time this included attending Sunday Mass in a somewhat lukewarm spiritual life. God was calling us to something more. Kelly started volunteering at church, and soon she “voluntold” me, too. As we became more involved with our church, we grew closer to God. For me, the ACTS retreat (Adoration, Community, Theology and Service)—with the help of the Holy Spirit—lit the fire in me. Over time, through the guidance of many others, including the priests at my church—Fr. Norbert Maduzia (pastor) and Fr. Martial Oya—I heard the call to serve God in a deeper way. After prayer, discernment, and six years of formation, on February 22, 2019, I accepted God’s call to serve him as a deacon in the Roman Catholic Church.
Q. How have you experienced God’s goodness in your life of ministry?
A. During my diaconate formation, I feared I wouldn’t be able to show God’s love and goodness to others adequately. But through the grace received in the sacrament of holy orders, I was able to experience and share that goodness.
As a deacon, I am called to a threefold ministry of liturgy, word, and charity (service). Liturgically, I experience God’s goodness through the Eucharist at Mass. Jesus Christ sacrificed his earthly life for our sins to save us from eternal death. At Mass, as I hold the chalice of the Blood of Christ, I experience the mercy of God flowing out for everyone. At baptism when I immerse the child into the water, I experience God’s love for his children. As I bring the child out of the water and into the loving embrace of his or her parent or godparents, I experience the angels rejoicing in heaven. Another child has been claimed for God.
The preparation of my homilies for the parish is meant to inspire me and transform my soul as well. At the proclamation of the Gospel and throughout my homilies, I hear the words of God spoken as I invite the holy people of God to follow the path of his Son. I strive to see the face of Christ in each person I minister to, especially the homeless and those just released from prison. Jesus says, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid” (Matthew 14:27). In my relationship with the less fortunate, I have learned to not be afraid to love those who are poor, different, or difficult. I have experienced what perfect love is when another person looks at me and realizes “it is you, I am not afraid.” At that moment, we see Christ in one another and share his love.
Never fear letting God love and show us how to love each other. In receiving God’s love and sharing it with others, we will find the true happiness we yearn for.
Q. When or where did the compassion of Christ become real to you? How has your ministry to the poor and abandoned affected you in a personal way?
A. Being a doctor and a deacon have similarities. Being a doctor is a call to a life of compassion and service for others. One of the main charisms of the diaconate is a life of service to God and to our neighbors for their spiritual well-being through our pastoral and compassionate care.
During my medical training, I was able to serve at a medical clinic for the homeless. There I witnessed the compassion of the volunteers who cared for those needing medical attention. With our limited medical supplies and equipment, we helped to heal those who were physically ill. Sometimes, we would drive around town in a van to look for those who are mentally disabled under the bridges and highway overpasses to make sure that they are taking their medications. I also volunteered at a house for runaway teens who suffered from mental, sexual, and physical abuse. They valued our help and medical treatment, but most of all they appreciated that we cared enough to help them. Most felt they were unworthy of love.
Though we may feel unworthy of God’s love, Christ comes to heal us from the ravages of sin and to free us from the prison of our shame so that we can live as true children of God.
During my formation and after ordination, I was assigned to the Magnificat House—a shelter for the homeless and those just released from prison. During my ministry, I was able to bring God’s word to those who felt abandoned or rejected by the world. I was able to show them the compassion of Christ. In return, these men showed me a love they had forgotten or had buried away in the deepest part of their souls. When we realize the depths of Christ’s love, we will find the love and compassion we’ve lost or buried away in response to anger, shame, or sorrows.
Q. What role does prayer play in your life?
A. Prayer has always played an important role in my life as a Catholic and as a deacon. As a new convert, I learned to pray basic prayers of our Catholic faith: the Creed, the Our Father, the Hail Mary, and the prayer before meals. Later, I learned to pray the rosary and the Chaplet of Divine Mercy. As part of my diaconate formation, I learned the Liturgy of the Hours, which includes morning and evening prayers.
Over time, as my faith grew stronger, I began to understand that my prayer life is my connection to God. It helps me grow in my relationship with him. Prayer became a daily conversation with God. I asked God for help in my struggles and prayed for others. I thanked God for his many blessings and guidance. Then I would rest in the quiet embrace of his love, especially in eucharistic adoration at the chapel. Sometimes, God would speak to my heart in that stillness. Other times, I would feel the presence of his comforting hand on my shoulder amidst my tears and cries. Occasionally, I even “hear” God smile at me and with me. “Remain in me, as I remain in you. Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me” (John 15:4).