BEING A MISSIONARY CHURCH IN SINGAPORE
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [1 COR 9:16-19, 22-23; MARK 16:15-20 ]
Today, we celebrate the Feast of St Francis Xavier, the patron saint of missionaries. He was a great missionary. It is estimated that in the ten years of his missionary travels, he baptized 30,000 people. Though he died at a relatively young age of 46, he had done much in bringing Christianity to the Far East and East Asia. He planted the seed of faith in the lands that he entered.
When we think of St Francis Xavier, we cannot but also think of the missionaries who brought the Catholic Faith to Singapore. Whether it is the MEP Fathers or the religious congregations such as Infant Jesus Sisters, FMDM, Canossian Sisters, La Salle Brothers or Gabrielite Brothers who have been here for more than a hundred years, our faith and where we are today is largely due to their contributions, not just to the local Church but to the country. Through the countless and untold sacrifices of these missionaries, the Church has become what it is today.
What was their secret in bringing the faith to us? Their secret is found in today’s scripture readings. Firstly, they knew the method. The way to proclaim the Good News is to touch the lives of our people in their needs. The gospel must be proclaimed first and foremost to the poor. This, of course, refers primarily to the materially poor. The first contact with the people is to touch them where they need help most. Without attending to their material needs, we cannot proclaim the gospel. But the poor also includes those who are suffering physically from ill-health, sickness, emotional and spiritual pain. Many suffer from loneliness, rejection, oppression and injustices. Hence, the Lord told the apostles, “These are the signs that will be associated with believers: in my name they will cast out devils; they will have the gift of tongues; they will pick up snakes in their hands, and be unharmed should they drink deadly poison; they will lay their hands on the sick, who will recover.”
Indeed, this was what the first missionaries did when they arrived in Singapore. We were then very poor and most did not receive any education. So when the MEP Fathers came to Singapore, they bought land and gave them to the poor to build their houses. The parishes, especially with the help of St Vincent De Paul, reached out to the poor regardless of race, language or religion. The FMDM sisters started Mt Alvernia Hospital to care for the sick. Then there were the Little Sisters of the Poor and the Canossians who took on the challenge of caring for the aged and the sick. The IJ Convent provided a home for the orphans and free education for the children.
Alongside helping the poor by offering humanitarian aid, the gospel was also proclaimed. The faith was shared with those who were ready to come to know Christ. Many were enrolled in the faith and received baptism. When the people recognized the goodness and generosity of the missionaries, they were more receptive to the gospel that was preached and taught. This was because they saw and received the gospel, the Good News of God concretely in their lives. So the gospel preached was accompanied by works.
But the effectiveness of their mission was not dependent on just the works they did, or their preaching of the gospel; it was dependent mostly on the effectiveness of the agents of the gospel. The gospel is not merely proclaimed through social services and powerful preaching alone. These are necessary, but more importantly, people are moved by the agents of the gospel, their lifestyle and disposition.
Firstly, if the missionaries in those days were effective, it was because of their exemplary lifestyle. Indeed, they were truly men and women of deep faith in Christ and they sought to live out the life of Christ in their daily life and ministry. They lived in simplicity and charity. They were always available to the people, whether for material help, emotional support, advice, counselling or spiritual help. They laboured for the people selflessly, day and night, and without reservations. The priests and missionaries in those days would visit the houses and sought to know their parishioners. That is why the priests are called Fathers, the religious, Brothers or Sisters because they were seen and loved as members of everyone’s household.
Secondly, they were people who had a sense of mission. St Paul said, “I do not boast of preaching the gospel, since it is a duty which has been laid on me; I should be punished if I did not preach it! If I had chosen this work myself, I might have been paid for it, but as I have not, it is a responsibility which has been put into my hands.” The missionaries offered their lives freely for the service of the gospel because they were convinced that the gospel was really Good News for all of humanity. Because they themselves had encountered the Good News and found salvation and meaning in Christ Jesus, the impetus to share Christ with all was a spontaneous response to the gift of the Good News. As Jesus in the gospel said, “Freely you have received; freely give.” (Mt 10:8)
Thirdly, they were identified with the people they lived with. This is an important aspect of mission. When we are separated from the lives of our people, their pains, and struggles and suffering, we lose touch with them. The gospel we preach will be over their heads and will not touch their lives. That is why there is no way to proclaim the gospel simply from the pulpit or from our offices. Pastors and missionaries must move with the people to know their heartfelt pains and struggles at work, in marriage and in family life. This was what St Paul said about himself. “So though I am not a slave of any man I have made myself the slave of everyone so as to win as many as I could. For the weak I made myself weak. I made myself all things to all men in order to save some at any cost; and I still do this, for the sake of the gospel, to have a share in its blessings.”
Fourthly, the gospel was offered free without conditions attached. St Paul said, “Do you know what my reward is? It is this: in my preaching, to be able to offer the Good News free, and not insist on the rights which the gospel gives me.” The Good News, if it were really to be Good News, must be offered freely and for free. The social and humanitarian works that we do are not tied down to the conversion of our recipients. All we seek to do is to share the Good News of God’s love for them because we love them regardless of race, status, language or religion. Indeed, this is a distinctive trait in the missionary work of Catholics. We are conscious that we do not impose our faith on our beneficiaries. Rather, we allow them to encounter God through us, and if they are given the gift of faith, we will share with them more explicitly about Jesus Christ.
In the light of what we have reflected, we must now ask ourselves, what does it mean to be a missionary Church in Singapore today, given that the situation we are in is different from 50 or 100 years ago? We are not that poor, although there are poor in Singapore still, especially among the vulnerable, elderly, abandoned, ex-prisoners and offenders, those rejected by society, and foreign workers without jobs. Today, our secular schools are much better equipped with the latest facilities and their teachers are better trained than many in our Catholic Schools. The hospitals are better equipped with the latest technology than that of our hospital and nursing homes.
So we must ask ourselves, what can we do to evangelize? We must offer them what the world cannot offer, our personal touch, our compassion and our understanding and support; most of all, the basis of our hope and our faith. We must be there to listen and feel with them in their struggles. Where needed, to offer them material and financial help. In Catholic schools, we can distinguish ourselves by making our schools loving, serving and gracious communities where there is a spirit of comradeship and most of all, grounded by the Catholic ethos of the gospel. In our hospital and nursing homes, we can offer them personalized services, doing everything with a smile and with joy so that they know they are loved and wanted, and not be seen as a burden to others. There are many who are rich and affluent, but their lives are miserable and empty. They too need to hear the gospel of Hope, and most of all, to know that Christ can give them meaning and purpose in life. Unless we learn from our missionaries of the past and imbibe their spirit, acquire the fundamental principles in missionary work, whilst applying and adapting to our times, we will eventually lose our relevance in society.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
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