Montfort School 100th Anniversary Mass – 16 January 2016
100 years is indeed a long time. It is a century old! We have just celebrated the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s independence. So it is truly amazing that the history of Montfort School is twice the age of the republic of Singapore! Indeed, we can consider ourselves very fortunate to be witnesses to this centenary celebration of Montfort School; because if we had missed this one, we would have had to wait for another 100! By then, none of us would be around…
Thinking back, we cannot but recount and reminisce all that had taken place in the last 100 years. Many of us, including Bishop Sebastian and myself, were once students of this school. I did all my academic formation in Montfort, from Primary One till Pre-University. So I too have many fond memories of my 12 years of study in this school, particularly when it was next to Nativity Church. Walking down memory lane brings back many happy memories of those days and the days of our founder and forefathers who too went through formation in this school. Many of them have become leaders in society, whether in government, in the corporate world or in NGOs, charitable and religious institutions. We are proud of them for their contributions to the development of Singapore, their services to the poor and marginalized, to the growth of the Catholic Church and Catholic education in Singapore. Others might not have been prominent leaders in society, yet they are equally honoured because they lived good and honest lives, raising virtuous children for the future and have been good role models as parents, building good and loving families. Finally, many are already in heaven, still praying for us as they look upon us continuing the tradition that they went through.
Indeed, thanksgiving is one of the most important aspects of this celebration. This is what the theme of this Mass is inviting us to do. We are called to give thanks to God for all that had happened, for we know that history is not just the product of man but the work of grace. Without the grace and blessings of God, we cannot transform children into great men; and rogues into saints. This is what the first reading from Isaiah reminds us. “Let me sing the praises of the Lord’s goodness, and of his marvelous deeds, in return for all that he has done for us and for the great kindness he has shown us in his mercy and in his boundless goodness. He said, ‘Truly they are my people, sons and no rogues’. He proved himself their savior in all their troubles. It was neither messenger nor angel but his Presence that saved them. In his love and pity he redeemed them himself, he lifted them up, carried them, throughout the days of old.” We cannot claim credit for all that we have done, for we know that it was only by His grace alone, that Montfort was able to produce so many young men and women who have become the movers and shakers of society, making a difference in the lives of our people.
Of course, we want to give thanks to all who have made this possible. It is true that everything is the grace of God, but without our cooperation with His grace, God cannot show forth His glory. We want to thank our founding fathers, especially the brothers of St Gabriel, the priests of the parish, our teachers, the staff, our parents and our friends who have journeyed with us during our formation in this school. Without their perseverance, dedication, love and tender care for us, we would never have made it to become the persons we are today. Everyone we met here in school, everyone who spent time with us, had been sent by God to journey with us, to form us in different ways, whether intellectually, in skills and leadership, in human relationships, or in our social and spiritual growth. We must never think that success is purely our human effort alone. Hundreds of people along the way have helped us by moulding us, forming us, guiding us, mentoring us and assisting us.
However, if this celebration just ends with the past, recalling what had taken place, and our current successes, then we would not be celebrating this anniversary meaningfully. Glorifying the past is not an invitation to rest on our laurels or to take refuge in flight from the real world. On the contrary, celebrating the past is always in view of the future. This is why the other more important aspect of this celebration is an invitation to chart the future. We honour the past so that we can learn from it as we prepare for the future. This is the objective of the study of history.
History is not primarily concerned with the events of the past, but with how these events can help us to formulate policies for the future. History must be taught and studied rightly. When I was in Pre-U, I won the top prize for Ancient History. It was not because I was smart, but I had a good memory. So I did well in history, not because I had insight, but because I could memorize all the historical facts. It was only when I was in the seminary that I came to realize that history is not based totally on objective facts. On the contrary, the memory of these events was less important than how we select these events and interpret the lessons for the future.
Indeed, the study of history is very important for the growth of any institution or nation. History is our teacher. If we forget our past, then we will be doomed to repeat the same mistakes of our forefathers. We will pay the same price, and history will repeat itself. This means that we are simply going round and round in circles, never truly growing from strength to strength, from height to height. Without learning from the past, we repeat the mistakes and start from ground zero again. This is often the real tragedy of many people because they never learn from their past. There are many people in failed relationships and repeat marriages. Before they can learn from the mistakes of their previous relationship or marriage, they begin a new one. Without a humble acknowledgement of their past mistakes and weaknesses, they are bound to repeat the same mistakes again. This is also applicable to those who fail in their studies, projects or jobs. They never learn from their mistakes or from the strength of their superiors or friends. This is what the Lord is asking of us through His prophet Jeremiah, “Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls. But you said, ‘We will not walk in it.’” (Jer 6:16) We need to examine what works and what does not work.
So we must firstly ask ourselves, what are the strengths of Montfort School that have withstood the test of time all these years? If you were to ask me, at least in my days, the strength of Montfort school, and indeed all Catholic schools, lay in its Catholic ambience and a truly Catholic education. During my days, the whole school was pervaded by a sense of the religious. We would have prayers three times a day, before school, during the Angelus at Midday and after class. Monthly, we went for the sacrament of reconciliation and First Friday Devotion Mass to the Sacred Heart. Every year, there was a retreat conducted by the Redemptorist Fathers. We had regular weekly catechism classes. We had Mass very often, especially during exam periods and founder’s day. On the personal level, we were permitted to promote Catholic devotions and activities e.g. during the Months of our Lady and the Holy Rosary. Many of us would spend our recess in the church to pray the rosary. Unfortunately many of these Catholic elements: the Mass, the devotions and sacramentals have been lost. This is my greatest regret and also my sincere hope that we will reclaim our Catholic ethos and identity in our Catholic schools once again. This is what St Paul is reminding us, “Let the message of Christ, in all its richness, find a home with you. Teach each other, and advise each other, in all wisdom. With gratitude in your hearts sing psalms and hymns and inspired songs to God; and never say or do anything except in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”
Most of all, we had good mentors in the presence of the Gabrielite religious brothers who were caring, exemplary, devoted and always ready to help us in our personal life, in relationships and studies, besides our spiritual life. Most of our teachers were also Catholic, and many of them encouraged us to take part in religious organizations, for example, joining the Altar Boys society, the Crusaders and the Legion of Mary. Our teachers were also very edifying in their own involvement in Church and in our personal life. They were great role models of how we should live a good Catholic life. By instilling in us the virtues of Christian living, we were in many ways brought up with a sound and deep foundation built on the gospel. Mr Dudley Francis Ess was one of the most devout Catholics, mentors and teachers I knew. Together with him, Mr Teo Joo Poh was instrumental in my vocation to the priesthood because he instilled in me a love for the scriptures, which then led me to join the Altar Boys and then the seminary.
Truly, they were like Jesus in today’s gospel, who loved children and never considered them a nuisance. “People brought little children to him, for him to lay hands on them and say a prayer. The disciples turned them away but Jesus said, ‘Let the little children alone, and do not stop them coming to me; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.’ Then he laid his hands on them and went on his way.” Such were our priests, religious brothers and sisters, and teachers that showed us the way to a holistic formation; not just academic performance but also spiritual and human formation. Many went out of the way to help us in our studies and personal life.
A Catholic ambience is more than just a prayerful environment but also a community with strong Catholic ethos and values that are founded on love, caring, mutual respect, compassion and forgiveness. This is what St Paul also wrote, “You are God’s chosen race, his saints; he loves you, and you should be clothed in sincere compassion, in kindness and humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with one another; forgive each other as soon as a quarrel begins. The Lord has forgiven you; now you must do the same. Over all these clothes, to keep them together and complete them, put on love. And may the peace of Christ reign in your hearts, because it is for this that you were called together as parts of one body. Always be thankful.”
What is most needed in our schools today, especially in this competitive, individualistic, success-oriented environment, is to tamper the focus on achievements with the call to build community based on love, compassion and humble service. The school is the second home for most young people where they learn values, skills, acquire knowledge, and develop their mind, body and spirit. We need to give them an experience of the love of Christ as lived in an authentic Christian community, where we care not just for the strong and the successful but in a special way, the poorer and weaker students. It is compassion for such students that make us different from other schools that only speak of excellence and achievements in worldly terms. Our greatest success is to transform young people who are weak, hopeless and broken into passionate, confident and serving leaders of tomorrow.
This is the Catholic ambience that all scripture readings teach. If we want to help our young people to do well in their studies and to live good, honest lives of integrity and holiness, we need to bring back that Catholic ambience to our Catholic schools. This has been and still must be the differentiating factor for our Catholic schools; that they offer more than academic achievements, but moral and spiritual formation as well. We need to give them a holy presence so that they know that education is sacred and therefore a means to sanctification and holiness of life. They are formed not just to be scholars but to be humble and selfless leaders with integrity and compassion for the poor and marginalized. They must be infused with a sense of gratitude to give back to Church, society and schools what they have received from them. If we fail to form them to be people who will contribute back to society and Church, then regardless of how well they do in life, we would have failed miserably.
Indeed, to prepare for the future, we must consider the current challenges of our present time. We have a good recipe for the future already. We have the blueprint, that is, the gospel and our Lord Jesus Christ. What we need to do is to see how to apply this blueprint to formation and education, not just to our students but even our teachers. Do we have teachers who are committed to the values of the gospel, regardless of whether they are believers or not? Are they good role models and mentors for our young people, or simply only good academic teachers? Are our students committed to the universal values of the gospel as enshrined in our national pledge?
Let our prayer then, be that of the psalmist, for in vain does the man labour if the Lord does not build. “God, be gracious and bless us and let your face shed its light upon us. So will your ways be known upon earth, and all nations learn your saving help. Let the peoples praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you. May God still give us his blessing till the ends of the earth revere him.” Without God, we cannot succeed and build a new generation with gospel values. Let us recover the Catholic meaning of education and reinforce the values and traditions that we have inherited all these years, whilst adapting to new situations, remaining faithful so that we will always be relevant for many years to come.
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved