SPEECH BY HIS GRACE, ARCHBISHOP WILLIAM GOH
AT THE LAUNCH OF VILLA FRANCIS, 16 MAY 2015
Dr Lam Pin Min, Minister of State for Health
Mr Thomas Tan, Chairman, CWS
Sr Theresa, Sr Maria, Canossian Sisters, Staff and Residents of Villa Francis,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good morning. It gives me great pleasure to officiate at the opening of this new Villa Francis, because reaching out to the poor, the needy and the outcasts of society is fundamental to Christian charity. This is how I see my episcopacy too, to give life to others, light to those in darkness and those in the valley of tears.
This was at the heart of the FMDM’s mission when the first sisters arrived in Singapore. Their mission was inspired by the abject conditions of the sick who were abandoned to await death alone, fearfully and pitifully in the death houses along Sago Street. The sisters sought then to provide a home for these abandoned ones, so that they could live the remaining days of their tortured lives with dignity. Their dream was realized when they managed to secure a 30-year lease on a 3-acre site in Mandai Estate from the National Council for Social Services, and Villa Francis opened its doors to its first residents in 1977.
Today, even though Singapore has come a long way from the economic backwaters of yesteryear, and our standard of living has increased significantly, these abandoned sick and destitute aged are still with us. Even then, there are still many poor in Singapore. I myself have gone to visit some of the poorest staying in one room flats at Bukit Ho Swee. Many of the elderly are abandoned and live alone. They have no one to look after them. One of them was sleeping on a mattress full of termites. Another was half paralyzed and her toilet was full of cockroaches. Well, Jesus did, after all, say that the poor will always remain with us. Poverty is not just material poverty but also of the spirit and the soul, the heart.
Generally, most elderly are not really destitute. Whereas in the early years these abandoned sick and aged were shunned due to poor medical conditions and the fear of infection, today many of them are shunned because family members see them as a burden. Sometimes because of the demanding challenges in life, many are unable to find time and resources to look after the aged ones who need nursing care. Of course, looking after them could be a drain on precious space and resources, a nuisance and an obstacle to their family members’ life plans. On top of that, sometimes they try our patience because they need special attention. They disturb our conscience and are the subject of family disunity. Society today measures the worth of individuals purely in terms of their material contribution. Hence we hear of many elderly, whether by choice or circumstances, preferring to live alone. Rather than suffer the indignity of being treated as a burden, they prefer to suffer quietly and away from accusing eyes. Those who overstay their welcome die a living death. Some would say that if they had a choice, they would prefer to die.
Actually, many of these people need not be bitter and difficult, as we tend to see them. They are this way only because they feel neglected, abandoned and unappreciated, unloved and short-changed, having given their best years to us and then we forget all that they had sacrificed. They are fearful, frustrated and humiliated, because they can no longer help themselves and are dependent on others for their very being. Many of them really do not want to be a bother. They do not want to be a burden to their families, to society. That is because they want to preserve their dignity. The greatest poverty in our time is loneliness and being left alone to rot. Material and physical needs alone cannot make them happy and fulfilled. Loneliness can kill. What they need is TLC, tender, loving care.
Is this how we reward them for a lifetime of toil? What ever happened to the age-old saying that long life is a blessing? As Christians, how do we bring another perspective to seeing value in our poor, sick and destitute brothers and sisters in Christ?
Jesus said, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”(Matt 25:40). Truly, if we allow ourselves to look at these brothers and sisters of ours from the heart of Jesus, we will see that they are God’s presence among us. They are opportunities for us to experience the person of Jesus – the humility of God! They give us an opportunity to be grateful for what they have given us with their lives, they teach us patience, love and generosity. In truth, they are our spiritual benefactors/benefactresses. They still continue to give, to shape us, only from a different perspective. God allows the poor to suffer so that we remain humane and compassionate in a world that is becoming more distant and impersonal because of science and technology and the digital form of communication.
So what can Villa Francis give them that others cannot give? What is our point of differentiation?
As caregivers, we can help them to live with dignity, give them a sense of belonging, a sense of community. We can help them to see that they have a role to play in our growth in holiness and in our capacity to love; that they are our partners in our journey of life. We must give them purpose and meaning, contributing in their own ways, whether by simply being a listener, caring for each other, giving hope and encouragement to those who visit them and to fellow residents. We want them to feel that they are persons and children of God, loved simply because of what they are and not what they can do or possess.
So our mission is not just to provide a roof over their heads and nursing care. Our mission must be to help them to see their new purpose in life. This has to be our differentiating factor. Our challenge is to see how we can give them a sense of community, a sense of belonging, a place they are happy to call ‘home’. Our motive is to give them the love of God.
However, let us not think that as caregivers we are giving to them and that they are simply receiving. On the contrary, they give us as much by teaching us how to love. They teach us how to be patient with the suffering. The elderly have a different role to play. They still can give by helping the younger generation to appreciate what they have. They can teach us how to be generous and compassionate to those who are sick. Hence, even as we give to them, we gain as much. It is not a one-way process but mutually both caregiver and residents give to each other in different ways.
There is a story of a boy whose parents would send their father to the garden to eat with a wooden bowl because he could not manage himself. One day, the son gave a present of a wooden bowl to the father, saying that he might need it when he becomes old. We set the example for our children. If we want our children to look after us, then we must teach them by example, by looking after our elderly and loved ones. We must be their mentor now so that when they grow up they will learn to care for their elderly. Otherwise, we should not lament and complain if our children do not care for us since we have not cared for our elderly as well. They imitate us.
We also need to provide for the residents’ spiritual formation, healing through compassionate love and humble service. Faith is the most precious gift to anyone so that the can live with hope today and have no fear of tomorrow. Without faith, suffering becomes meaningless and doing good seems vanity. But faith in God sets a person free from fear of suffering and death, for God is their future. We must encourage them to pray, to offer up their sufferings as purification for themselves and for the conversion of the world. We must help them to see that they still have much to give. They must learn to surrender their lives to God and purify their lives through humility in receiving. They must learn how to live in community, taking care of each other, tolerating and forgiving each other like brothers and sisters. We must treat them as Christ among us; not just another person, so that they will also learn to be positive, grateful and kind to others, including the care givers. In this way, they are healed in mind and heart and spirit, growing in holiness and prepared for eternal life with God. We want to help them to be saints on earth so that in the process they make us saints as well. This is the essence of our Catholic ethos, goal and mission.
Today, we want to thank the Canossian Sisters who have taken over the care of these residents since 2006. We want to also acknowledge the contributions of all those who have helped to keep Villa Francis open – the caregivers, corporate and institutional partners, benefactors and volunteers, whose love and sense of mission are the basic ingredients for keeping these residents spiritually and emotionally alive.
I am heartened to see that you are committed to ensuring that the residents of Villa Francis are treated with Dignity and given Holistic Care through Love, Kindness and Understanding, as enshrined in your Vision and Mission statements.
This year, Singapore celebrates 50 years of Nationhood. The Church has every reason to be proud of our nation’s achievements, because she has contributed significantly in shaping the values of our people through the fields of education and healthcare. Let us continue to do our part in nation-building. Let us lead the way in helping our society redefine the worth of every human being, regardless of race, language or religion, and especially the sick, the aged and the destitute, as seen through the eyes of love and compassion. This is how we testify to our discipleship in Christ.
May God continue to bless you richly in your labour of love, and may all those who seek refuge in this home find the peace of Christ and the joy of living.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh
Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore
© All Rights Reserved