Functionality and drabness characterise much modern church architecture. Of all the modern churches I have come across in both Australia and Poland, few have inspired appreciation of their artistic beauty. Of course, I have not seen a great number of these edifices, so my opinion is limited by the small sample. I have certainly heard of churches with stunning interiors in Poland's Subcarpathian region but have never had an opportunity to visit there.
Given this obvious, uniform artistic dullness in our churches, my visit with my wife to the Church of Divine Mercy in Singapore was all the more astounding.
Our discovery happened by chance. During our stopover in Singapore on the way to Poland on a weekend in May 2012, we decided to fulfil our Sunday obligation by attending a Mass in Chinese. We expected to see a handful of citizens of advanced age gathered together in a functional, ugly, shed-like structure. We were told at the information desk that the church closest to our hotel was the Church of Divine Mercy. It was apparently a few blocks away. In the event, it took us a fifteen-minute taxi ride to get there.
When the taxi drew up in front of a huge church, we experienced our first moment of surprise. We entered a large vestibule and then the crowded interior of the church. And here we were spellbound.
The church gave life to St Faustina Kowalska's inspired message of Divine Mercy and of the love and joy He has sent us. The interior of the church was flooded with light, which flowed through eight enormous, colourful stained-glassed windows, four on the left and four on the right. These superb, multi-coloured, Italian windows feature the seven Sacraments as well as the risen Christ.
A huge luminous cross dominates the ceiling. Our attention was drawn to the unusual altar, a work of art in itself. Above the altar hangs a modern sculpture, depicting Christ on the cross. The cross is made of two enormous nails. And above the cross hangs an immense crown of thorns.
The effect is dramatic. On the right of the altar a mosaic - also made in Italy - portrays Divine Mercy, and on the left, a recess awaits the choir and orchestra. Twelve crosses symbolising the twelve apostles adorn the walls. An Italian lamp, fashioned out of stained glass depicting the merciful Christ, hangs at the entrance to the church. Interestingly, a painting of Our Lady is located at the exit which the faithful touch upon leaving.
The church houses up to a few hundred people. The balcony is used only during special ceremonies, when the number of participants increases even more. Behind the balcony is the parish hall, which if need arises, can be opened out to the balcony.
Loudspeakers - so unsightly in our churches - were conspicuous by their absence because the acoustics were excellent.
As we left the church after Mass, we saw some children playing in the vestibule. A young Chinese girl wearing a blue sash over her shoulders was minding them. Their parents were probably in the shop next door, or in the café or restaurant. A multi-storey car park is right next to the church, as well as a large, multi-purpose plaza (e.g., for meetings, conferences, games, and sports).
The Church of Divine Mercy is open only on Sundays. Weekday masses take place in a chapel under the church, which can seat 180 people. In the corridors leading to the chapel, we saw figures and paintings of saints, including Mother Teresa of Calcutta.
The construction of the church was begun in February 2007, and the official opening took place in January 2010. Fr Piotr Prusakiewicz from Poland had arrived in Singapore bearing relics of St Faustina, and these were laid under the altar.
No government funding went towards the construction of the church, which cost $24 million. The parishioners were active in fund-raising and promoting the building of the church, and must have relied on many sponsors outside the parish as well as very generous parishioners.
The parish priest of Divine Mercy is most certainly not your average pastor as one must be versatile to be able to oversee such an extensive building project. Fr Johnson Fernandez is of Indian origin but was born in Singapore, so he possesses good local knowledge and understanding. An additional, crucial role undertaken by him is that of editor of the local Catholic newspaper.
But Fr Fernandez rejects any suggestion of being overworked, thanks to his helpers: the vicar and the parishioners, who are remarkably well organised and more than fulfil their obligations. 70 percent of his parishioners are Chinese and 30 percent are Filipino (Catholics make up fewer than 4.5 percent of the five million inhabitants in Singapore). Last year, 58 adults were baptised. These catechumens varied in age, education, and social standing, and came from a variety of faiths.
Our visit to the Church of Divine Mercy in Singapore was surprising on all fronts. It is apparent that churches are not being closed all over the world, nor are they being sold to be converted into mosques or restaurants. And the Divine Mercy parish confirmed that not only the elderly attend Mass.
We were at a regular Mass - not a youth or children's Mass - and were thus impressed by the large number of young people and mothers with youngsters. These Chinese and Filipinos are a shining example to follow and personally we felt uplifted by them, who gave such tangible witness to the universality of the Catholic Church.
We encourage fellow Australians who are travelling to Europe to stop in Singapore and attend Mass at the Church of Divine Mercy. Such a visit would not only provide a wonderful spiritual and artistic experience but would be a pilgrimage in itself. Not all modern Catholic churches need to be functional to the exclusion of everything else - they can also be things of beauty. We will long remember sharing in the Mass with the parishioners of Singapore.