SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ Gn 27:1-5. 15-29; Ps 135:1-6; Mt 9:14-17]

The Church’s relationship with the Lord is often portrayed as a marriage, a romance between Jesus and the Church.  Jesus is the bridegroom and the Church is His bride.  When we think of a wedding, sentiments of joy, celebration, laughter, love, friendship and union are expressed.  So, if the bridegroom is with the Church, then we must be full of life, love and passion for Jesus and the Good News.   The Church must be a vibrant, evangelistic and missionary Church.  We must be alive with the Good News and reaching out with joy and passion to others.

But are our Catholic communities manifesting the joys and life of a wedding celebration?  The truth is that in many Catholic communities, the church only has elderly people attending the services.  There is no life and sometimes even hardly any activities.  The young are missing from the life of the parishes.  Mass attendance is poor.  Homilies are boring.  Some of the services seem more like a funeral service than a wedding.  Indeed, many of our parishes, even if they appear to be alive, are maintenance churches.  They are contented with a large attendance of worshippers, but in truth hardly 10% are active in the Catholic community.  And out of this 10 %, their faith is weak and shallow, without real formation in spiritual life and sound doctrines, and evangelical zeal.  It gives the impression that it is alive, just like the case of Isaac who thought that Jacob was his son Esau, simply because he smelt the clothes of Esau and felt his hairy arms.  It is just a show, a deception.  Yet, this is the truth in many of our parishes as well.

This is the irony of the Catholic Church.  Her strength has become her liability.  The Catholic Church is more than 2000 years old.  She is the oldest institution in the world.  Over the years, she has established herself all over the world, present in every land.  Over the years, the institution has grown to serve the universal Church of 1.2 billion Catholics.  Over the years, the liturgy has developed, structures, offices and organizations have been established and some renewed.   Layers and layers of tradition have developed in the Church.  Many of these institutions have been fossilized and change becomes very difficult because of the size and traditions that have been entrenched in the cultures of our people.  As a result, we have become complacent.  The Church appears to be more interested in preserving the traditions, the institutions and the structures rather than being evangelical minded.  Those in charge of such institutions often get sucked into the system and are conditioned to maintain the status quo.

Indeed, like Isaac, we have unfortunately lost our vision.  “Isaac had grown old, and his eyes were so weak that he could no longer see.”  We are myopic and we are blind to the urgency to renew the Church.  We are contented with where we are.  At the present moment, it is true that our churches are packed, which again is a deception because many of them are migrants.  Many of our young people have left the Church after confirmation.  Our Catholic schools are losing favour with our own Catholics because some feel that they lack both the quality, not just in academic performance but also in Catholic ethos and spirituality.  Our conversion rate hovers at around 1200 a year when we have 373,000 Catholics.  But we are quite happy because the Sunday collections are more than enough to maintain the parish.  There are programs to keep the parishioners occupied.  The services and needs of the parish are well taken care of by workers or volunteers in the Church.  But is the Catholic population alive in the faith?  Are they active?  Are we producing more priestly and religious vocations, the sign of a community of faith?  Are we reaching out to those who are seeking to find meaning and salvation in Christ?  The danger is that if we do not realize the urgency of renewal and change, then one day the bridegroom will be taken away and we will find the Church redundant.

So what must be done to renew the Church and rediscover her evangelical zeal?   In the gospel, Jesus made it clear.  We need new wine and new wineskins.  What the Church badly needs is a renewal of the hearts of our people.  They need the new wine!  We need to renew their spirit and their love for the Lord.  This is the first thing that needs to be done.  Some of our parishes are trying to help their people to encounter the Lord more deeply through a lively participation of the Eucharist and renewal programs.  The fact remains that very few parishioners register for such programs, maybe a couple of hundreds, even for big parishes; some less than 50.  Most are Sunday Catholics.  They are happy to come to church every Sunday for regular maintenance and live their life as usual after mass, without bringing the gospel life into their place of work and their families and social life.

That is why I am convinced that the future of the Church lies in the new evangelical movements.  Renewal is coming from those in the charismatic renewal, retreat centers, spirituality centers, the Neo-Catechumenate, the Young communities such as the Office of Young People and Jesus Youth, renewal movements such as Couples for Christ, El Shaddai, social and charitable organizations under the umbrella of Caritas and Charis.  These organizations are new and are free from the burden of structures and traditions.  They are open to change and can adapt to the times.  Only when people have been touched by the Spirit of God, will they be filled with zeal and passion to spread the Good News.  Through these renewal movements, the parish can then be rejuvenated.  At least some of them who have encountered the Lord deeply and been through a conversion experience, can start the process of injecting new life into our parishes.

However, renewal of the hearts of our people is not enough unless the structures and institutions are changed as well.  The Church needs to be courageous in revising her Canon Laws and the way the Church is structured.  It is still too hierarchical, bureaucratic, dominated by the clergy and elderly priests and religious, so much so she lacks vibrancy and evangelical zeal.  Without greater participation of the laity and the women in decision-making and theological contribution, the Church will soon become outdated, irrelevant and marginalized by the world.  Changes are being made by Pope Francis, but it has been slow going because of resistance from the establishment.  Unfortunately, some of these new evangelical movements are also already old!  Some have allowed their traditions to stifle their growth because they failed to pass on their encounters with Christ to the younger generations.  Those new movements whose leaders are not willing to move out and let the younger generation come in will also eventually be fossilized like the rest of the churches.

Indeed, new wine in new wineskins, otherwise, “the skins burst, the wine runs out, and the skins are lost.  No; they put new wine into fresh skins and both are preserved.”  The zeal of the young people and those renewed will be stifled by the fossilized establishment which are not open to change and new ideas because of pride and insecurity.  It is the same too when we try to put “a piece of unshrunken cloth on to an old cloak because the patch pulls away from the cloak and the tear gets worse.”  Without a radical change of the heart and the institutions, we will be back to square one.

Perhaps God is allowing the scandals in the Church among the hierarchy to bring the Church down so as to rebuild it.  The sins of the clergy will help our priests, bishops and cardinals to come down from their high horses, just like Jacob and his mother Rebekah who cheated Isaac, were punished for their dishonest acts.  Jacob had to leave his mother and flee to Haran to take refuge from Esau who wanted to kill him.  It took him 20 years to be reconciled with Esau.  (cf Gen 33:1-4)  So too, when the bridegroom is taken away from us, then we will fast. “Surely the bridegroom’s attendants would never think of mourning as long as the bridegroom is still with them?  But the time will come for the bridegroom to be taken away from them, and then they will fast.”  The time has come for the clergy and the people of God to fast and put on sackcloth so that there will be a renewal of hearts followed by a renewal of structures and institutions before the Church can rise in glory again.

Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved

Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
  • 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.
  • Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
  • It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.

Note: You may share this reflection with someone. However, please note that reflections are not archived online, nor will they be available via email request.

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