The Catholic Church in Singapore: why is it strong and healthy?

The Catholic Church in Singapore: why is it strong and healthy?

Michael Barr

The Catholic Church may be experiencing declines in religious faith and practice in much of Europe, North America and Australasia, but in other parts of the world, the story can be quite different, particularly in the Third World and in parts of Asia such as South Korea and the Philippines. A case in point is Singapore, about which Michael Barr, who is completing a doctoral thesis at the University of Queensland on the development of Lee Kwan Yew's political thought, offers the following first-hand observations.

A two-month visit hardly qualifies me as an expert on the state of the Catholic Church in Singapore. Although I came to Singapore to conduct academic research, the Church was not the subject of my study. Sadly, I am not a journalist and therefore lack the ability to become an "instant expert" after spending ten minutes in a country. I have, however, been studying aspects of Singapore's history and society for several years and feel that I can, at the risk of oversimplifying the situation, report a few personal observations which may be of interest to AD2000 readers.

Put simply, the Church in Singapore appears to be full of vitality and energy. The churches and many of the religious houses (male and female) are full. The seminary is training a healthy number of candidates for the priesthood. Nuns even wear habits and veils in this country. While there are no doubt problems in the Church of which I am not aware, the general picture of a strong, healthy church is, I believe, accurate.

The Church is very small, but growing. With less than 5% of the population professing to be Catholic, it is one of the smaller religions in a secular society. Anecdotal evidence from local priests suggests that 60% or more of Catholics attend the sacraments regularly in one of Singapore's 30 Catholic churches. This suggests that there are about 80,000 practising Catholics, including children. The Catholic population is growing by about 4,000 a year, nearly half of which enter the Church through conversion.

The Singapore Catholic Church currently has over 100 priests (both diocesan and religious), more than 50 religious brothers and more than 200 religious sisters. A small proportion of these are expatriates from Australia, Belgium, Ireland, France and other parts of Asia, but the majority are born and bred in Singapore.

The diocesan seminary currently has about a dozen candidates. I have not seen any figures for the number of Singaporean candidates for the religious orders, since almost all the orders send their seminarians overseas for training. The one exception to this rule is the Franciscans. They have a number of postulants and novices in formation, and the Order recently ordained four local-born men to the diaconate, along with two men from other parts of Asia.

This is a healthy, post-Vatican II Church which has refrained from indulging in most of the abuses that are commonplace in Australia and which are usually justified by gratuitous references to "the spirit of Vatican II".

What is the secret? How is this minuscule Church able to display such vigorous signs of health in a non-Christian environment?

There does not seem to be a secret as such, beyond having priests, nuns, brothers, teachers, seminary lecturers and parents who are self-confident in their fidelity to the Pope and the Church, and who have an energetic, evangelistic faith.

Impressions

Although my impressions of the Church in Singapore are based primarily on my contact with the local Franciscan communities and my attendance at Sunday Mass at St Joseph's Parish, Upper Bukit Timah, my experience with other parishes and religious communities suggests that these observations are valid in varying degrees for the Church throughout Singapore.

Going to Mass in St Joseph's was in some ways like stepping into the past. They still bless the altar and the congregation with holy water and incense at every Sunday Mass. The Mass is said solemnly with little abuse of the liturgy. The church is full.

The altar boys are well trained and appear to be in plentiful supply. Each Sunday Mass is accompanied by a 30-strong choir, singing a mixture of traditional and modern hymns. I did not see any Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, but acolytes were present in abundance.

Yet in just as many ways it is different from anything in the Australian Church's experience. There is a modest amount of inculturation, and St Joseph's is built in the style of a Chinese temple. There is a Mandarin Catholic paper to parallel the English language paper. This parish regularly has a Sunday Mass in Mandarin, alongside the English-language Masses. One is greeted at the church door by a small army of ushers dressed in business trousers, white shirts, ties, and a distinctive sash, all of which makes a striking quasi-uniform. A morning coffee shop and a little market is open in the "void deck" under the church each Sunday, making the church a focus of social, as well as religious life.

While inculturation has played a role in the Singapore Church, it is of a fairly limited nature. I am told that St Joseph's is one of the most "Chinese" of the Catholic churches in Singapore, and even there the statues do not depict Our Lord and Our Lady as Chinese. The inculturation is probably limited because there are significant non-Chinese minorities in the Church, the largest of which is the ethnic Indians. While most minorities are fluent in English and are fully integrated into the parishes, Our Lady of Lourdes in the city still has a Tamil Mass each Sunday, while the Cathedral and some parishes have Masses in Tagalog to cater for the Filipino maids.

The Church appears to have had little difficulty in making itself meaningful to Singaporeans, while maintaining its orthodoxy and fidelity to Rome. Indeed, the vast majority of the sermons I heard were unambiguous and forthright in proclaiming the Gospel. Their message was unadulterated by the latest Western trends, fads, theological theories and uncertainties, with which Australian Catholics have become familiar. Singaporeans are responding to this clear call of the Church in droves.

Turning to the Franciscan community, its vitality is a testament, not only to the spirit of St Francis and the example of the friars, but also to the depth of devotion of the laity. The Franciscans established themselves in Singapore in 1958, and they now have three houses for friars and novices. The friars are almost all local born. The average age is in the 30s and the Order has a healthy flow of new postulants and novices.

Their work is supported by an extensive network of benefactors: lay men and women who assist the friars financially and with the sweat of their brows. These people are an integral part of the Franciscan family in Singapore, and are part of the spiritual life of the communities.

I attended a Transitus of St Francis: a liturgy marking his death. I was struck by the solemnity of the occasion, and the paradox of sitting in tropical Singapore at the end of the 20th Century, watching a service led by 30 or so men, mainly Chinese and Indians, dressed in habits designed by a 13th century Italian friar (though, as in Australia, the habit is made of cotton to suit the climate).

Church full

The other thing that struck me was that the church was full on a Wednesday evening. What was extraordinary to me was a normal part of these people's lives: the faith, the Church and, in the case of this particular group, the Franciscans. They do not appear to suffer from the endless doubts that bedevil the Church in Australia. Its members have a strong esprit de corps that is no doubt partly derived from the small size of the Church and the consciousness that Catholics, and indeed Christians, are such a small minority.

The Church is standing as a visible "sign of contradiction" in this country. Singapore is a very sterile, secular society, which has, over the last four decades, been subject to a continuous stream of very basic and often contradictory social changes. These changes have affected the lives of all Singaporeans in fundamental ways, leaving many people with a sense that something has been lost or is missing. One senior government Minister has described Singapore as being more like a hotel than a home.

Between the lack of a sense of "belonging", and the imperatives of living in a high cost, newly prosperous, competitive society, Singaporeans have become extremely materialistic. A university graduate with a good primary or honours degree can expect to be earning $200,000 or more a year by his or her early 30s, and million dollar mortgages for the purchase of luxury flats are commonplace. The advertising industry both reflects and feeds the materialism. This is true of advertising throughout the Western World, but in Singapore it takes on a particularly smug tone because it is overlaid with a cult of winning. Unless you are a winner, you are nothing.

Material possessions have become the main source of people's self-identity. Well-educated Singaporeans crave the million or multi-million dollar condominium, the $150,000 car, the designer suits and the latest and flashiest technology. Material acquisitiveness has become much more important to most of the younger, English-educated Singaporeans than their ties of community, race or family. Former Senior Minister S. Rajaratnam has described this phenomenon as "moneytheism".

Between the fast pace of social change and the ugly materialism of Singapore, many people are disoriented and dissatisfied As a consequence people strive to find a deeper purpose in life and a sense of identity and community.

I recently had the opportunity to interview former Deputy Prime Minister Dr Goh Keng Swee. He put it very simply: "Christianity is advancing in Singapore. There are churches everywhere. People worry: what is life about? They are open to religion." While this is undoubtedly true, it is doubtful whether they would have responded so enthusiastically to the mish-mash of religious pop-psychology and pop-theology which has become a staple diet in many Australian parishes.

Relevant?

Experts ensconced in the Catholic seminaries, bureaucracies and schools in Australia might tell us that in such an environment the Church needs to radically reform its liturgies to make them interesting to the young people.

They might say that the Church needs to be relevant to the modern world, and engage in social justice issues in order to flourish. Such experts might even have a point since there are many social and political questions, ranging from family issues to the treatment of foreign workers, on which traditional Catholic social teaching would call for reforms.

For better or worse, such arguments have held little sway within the Church in Singapore.

The Church has flourished despite the fact that it is, at least on the surface, totally irrelevant to modern Singapore society. Its very existence is a contradiction of the essence of contemporary Singapore.

Perhaps that is the secret.

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