The Heart and the Spine: Deacon Michael Tan

Deacon Michael Tan, 10 March 2022

Deacon Michael Tan brings so much to his diaconal ministry. He became a Catholic in his late teenage years, he married and had a professional career in medicine. Michael has been through a spiritual journey that led from Malaysia to Australia and from Chinese spiritualities to Catholicism. He calls his baptism “a response to grace” and recognises its significance and transformative power. However, for Michael it is also a “call to mission”: to follow Jesus through ministry in the world around us.

For many years, Michael lived out that mission through his marriage and healthcare profession, participating in the ministry of healing. He has not only been a doctor, but brought together faith-based medical professionals in various networks, including those responding to COVID. Michael found that there was a great need for spiritual support for his patients, and for people trained to walk with others through difficult times. He remembers a particular situation, working with an abuse victim in palliative care. As a doctor, he “could only invite her to reflect on what would help her to live in peace and hope at that time.” However, he was clearly aware of his professional boundaries, and her separate pastoral and sacramental needs. He saw his role as a mediator between the person and Christ, like on the journey to Emmaus. At some point, he needed to let go and let Jesus and the patient walk together “into the sunset”. 

For years, Michael had been involved with his parish, with various diocesan commissions and councils. And he saw a need for more conscious connections between his Catholic faith and healthcare professionals. So some years ago, he was a member of the committee planning the first Mass for the World Day of the Sick in the Parramatta Diocese. This spurred a desire to organise formation in this area, but the local clergy did not have the necessary background or capacity. So after prayer and discussion, the Vicar for Healthcare suggested that Michael become a deacon so that his dream could find a place within the structures of the diocese.

After discernment and preparation, Michael left his professional healthcare job and, last year, was ordained a Permanent Deacon of the Diocese of Parramatta. His call to baptism progressed to a call to ordination, a true blessing in his life. Michael describes the value of ordination as “one word: credibility”. He recognises that he does not need to spend years building up credibility for ministry as a lay person. However, it also comes with responsibility: “I need to treasure it and not abuse or take it for granted.” People know where ‘Deacon Michael’ fits in, and they understand that he has authority from the Church to do what he does. “In its proper sense, authority is important – it gives people structure and connects them.”

And now Michael has a wonderful new remit: to build up the healthcare ministry of the diocese “from the ground up”. He is planning all sorts of gatherings for formation, prayer and celebration, to nurture the Catholic faith of healthcare professionals. He also stresses that the “first and primary experience” of most people is caring for the sick within their own families. This is a call to strengthen the domestic church, and to recognise many home carers. 

Another value of Michael’s ordained ministry is the opportunity for liturgical and sacramental support for those who are most wounded. He has been with people in very marginal circumstances, including abuse survivors and those who have come out of jail. He knows the significance of groundwork and context in these spaces. It “needs a process where the pastoral experience leads into the liturgical planning. If not, it falls flat.” While those on the margins do not usually have a voice in liturgical planning, a step in the right direction is to work with people who have walked on the journey with them. Then following such liturgies, it is good to try to get feedback from the wounded and marginalised. What has worked for them? What kind of liturgy will speak to them?
In Michael’s homilies, it is easy to see how much his life experience enables him to connect the scriptures with people’s lives. When preaching recently for the Third Sunday in Ordinary Time, Michael reflected on the Church as the body of Christ and our bodies as temples of the Holy Spirit. To give an example, he spoke of the relationship between the heart of the body and the spine. While “the heart expresses our deepest desires and emotions that enables us to appreciate the beauty of God…without the spine, our hearts can be vulnerable to impulsiveness, emotional swings and roller coasters.” We need both the heart and the spine. The charismatic and the structural. The healing of the body and the spirit. Thanks, Michael!

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