Often people ask me, ‘Why are you in Singapore?’ I tried to find some explanation, but people did not seem to be satisfied with my answer. Until one day, I got the answer.
Because of God. As simple as that.
It is God who, in His mysterious way, prepared me, and led me to Singapore.
When I began to respond to the priesthood at the age of 17, it was quite clear that I would be a priest overseas, not in France, that I would be a missionary.
Where? I did not know. Could be Asia, Africa.
And at the age of 18, I joined the Paris Foreign Missions Society, or the MEP, what you call here ‘the French gang’. Then I went to study, did my national service, and when I was in Rome at the end of January 1956, I got a message of my posting: ‘Arro, Singapore’. And Singapore became The Promised Land.
‘Leave your country and your relatives and go to the land that I will show you’ (Acts 7:3). That was what God said to Abraham, and God accompanies all those who are called to be missionaries.
The first dimension of a missionary is to go out.
To leave behind what I would call our comfort zone and to go into the unknown, knowing that the Lord is journeying with us.
I arrived in Singapore in 1957 and after I landed at Clifford Pier, I went to the bishop’s house and was told that it has been decided I would learn Chinese.
That was one of the challenges for me – to become a part of Singapore, to go into the minds of the people, to live with the people, to get into the cultures, the traditions.
It was not always easy. There were times when I asked myself what I was doing here. But the answer was clear. ‘I have sent you’.
And you were the answer too, by welcoming me, by inviting me into your families… and there are now a number of families who call me ‘yeh yeh’ (grandfather).
Yes, that is the first dimension of a missionary, to leave your country and go to the land God will show you.
And go for life. Not for a time, not for a number of years, not for a term, but for life.
When I first came to Singapore, the tradition was that we were allowed to return to our home land only every 10 years, because our mission is to be out for life.
Then when it was possible, I became a Singapore citizen. Not for any political motive, but I belong here. Definitely my life is here, and I hope that when the time comes, my bones will rest in Singapore.
And I thank God for allowing me to spend my whole life here. Some of my confreres (brother priests) have been expelled from the country where they started their missionary work.
My whole life, with all the limitations I have, with different gifts according to different times, and different ways of serving – being a parish priest, being a professor and formator in seminary, seeing Singapore as part of Malaysia and then independent Singapore; 29 years I worked in the seminary, and it gave me a tremendous opportunity to know the people.
The other priority of a missionary is the non-Christian. We give priority to the non-Christians, to bring the Gospel to them. On the day of my ordination, there was a line from the Acts of the Apostles: ‘Go, I have chosen him to serve me and to make my name known to Gentiles’ (Acts 9:15).
So to reach out to people through RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults), it is definitely my priority. And I marvel every year when I begin with a new group of people, to see how they open up to God and to see how, in the end, like Thomas, they turn to Christ and say, ‘My Lord and my God’.
With Marriage Encounter and Engaged Encounter, we reach out to so many couples where some may not be Catholic, and we get the opportunity to put across Christ’s vision of marriage to those who are not yet in the faith.
In the schools, at the convents around here, 1,200 children in the school, 200 Catholics, 1,000 non-Catholics. I enjoy sowing there, the seeds of the Gospel. What will come out of it, how many seeds will grow, I don’t know. That is not my problem. That is the problem of the Holy Spirit. And of our faith.
And here I want to thank you, because with you and by you, I am able to be a missionary. I cannot do it alone. It is the whole faith community.
During my past years in St Teresa, I have baptised many, and I rejoice because I have seen the Church growing in Singapore. When I came in 1958, there were 12 parishes here, now there are 32. Not just for the sake of having a new church building, but because of a growing community.
And I still see the Church grow. I see in you and in so many other people that search for Scripture, for Sacraments, and for any other faith formation. The Church in Singapore is growing in number and in quality. I want to thank God and to thank you for being a part of this whole Church.
Finally, we are called not only to love, but to love in a better way, to ask for forgiveness. In all my years of service, I am sure I have upset quite a number of you. I have been too pushy, wanting this or that. Please forgive me for what I have done, and for what I have not done.
Together, I have the privilege of remaining among you as a priest-in-residence. I want to thank the Archbishop and Fr John Bosco, a joyful and youthful parish priest for St Teresa.
May the Lord help us to grow together and with the Church in Singapore, to grow in love. I have come not to be a priest in charge, but a priest in love. Amen.”
Fr Michael Arro, MEP