ARCHBISHOP’S PASTORAL LETTER: Building community: essential for work of New Evangelisation

January 16, 2016 at 4:12 pm Leave a comment

IN MANY of his letters, St John Paul II underscored the importance of communion in the mission of the Church.In his encyclical to the Church in Asia, he wrote, “communion and mission are inseparably connected. They interpenetrate and mutually imply each other, so that ‘communion represents both the source and fruit of mission: communion gives rise to mission and mission is accomplished in communion.’” (Church in Asia, 24). Again in his apostolic letter at the beginning of the new millennium, he reiterated, “It is in building this communion of love that the Church appears as ‘sacrament’, as the ‘sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the human race’. The Lord’s words on this point are too precise for us to diminish their import.” (NMI 42)

Indeed, the goal of evangelisation is communion. The Church is called to be a scrament of love and unity in the world. “By this all will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn 13:35). St John also wrote, “…we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (1 Jn 1:3) Rightly so, if our mission is to bring all into communion with each other in love and unity through our fellowship with the Holy Trinity, then we must seek every means to preserve, protect and foster communion in our workplace, Church ministries, organisations, parishes and archdiocesan bodies, whether they are full-time workers, volunteers or helpers.

Conversely, the greatest threat to the mission of the Church is not from external factors such as secularism, relativism, materialism and consumerism. The greatest enemy of the Church’s mission is from within. It is the clergy, Religious and the laity. We are divided among ourselves and fighting with each other; so that we have no more strength or passion to focus on our mission and the needs and sufferings of the flock under our care and the lost sheep in the world.

This is what Jesus was warning us in the gospel when He said, “If a kingdom is divided against itself, that kingdom cannot stand. And if a house is divided against itself, that house will not be able to stand.” (Mk 3:24f) And He concluded, “But no one can enter a strong man’s house and plunder his property without first tying up the strong man; then indeed the house can be plundered.” (Mk 3:27) Accordingly, not only must we strengthen our communion and unity in our common mission for the glory of God, but we must also bind up the enemies of unity within our house.

Indeed, as Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Singapore, it is my duty and my role as chief shepherd of this archdiocese to unite the whole Church, clergy, religious and laity, so that we can all accomplish this mission of communion in communion. Everywhere I go, it breaks my heart to see and hear of so much division within the Church, from the Church organisations to the parishes and the archdiocesan offices. There is so much misunderstanding, lack of communication, trust and hurts that have been experienced in the process of working for the Church and for Christ.

How often do I receive letters of complaint because of grievances, injustices, discrimination, abuses, scandals and the dictatorial attitudes of those in authority! So many workers, volunteers and Church members have been so deeply wounded by the Church they love and serve. As a consequence, many have either left the Church ministries or even the Church completely, because of the loss of faith, disillusionment, anger and resentment.

In view of this absolute precondition for the work of evangelisation, the archdiocese has, through the Office of the New Evangelisation, sought to focus all Church entities, organisations and ministries to give attention to the work of building a spirituality of communion among themselves and wherever they are, in the workplace, in the Church, in the parish and in our homes. St John Paul II wrote, “Before making practical plans, we need to promote a spirituality of communion, making it the guiding principle of education wherever individuals and Christians are formed, wherever ministers of the altar, consecrated persons, and pastoral workers are trained, wherever families and communities are being built up.” (NMI 43)

BEFORE we focus on how we should foster the spirituality of communion, we must first come to grasp the causes of division among ourselves. What causes division?

Primarily, it is because of pride. More often than not, we are not conscious that when we do something, apparently a service to the community, it is entangled with our own need for appreciation, recognition and acceptance. Many of us are unconsciously working for our own ambition although we proclaim with our lips that we are serving God and the community. Few offer their services without some hidden agenda, of which they may not even be aware because of the lack of self-knowledge between their conscious desires and their unconscious intentions.

Indeed, the ancient sin of pride, the Old Adam, remains in us. This is seen in wanting to do our own will and always singing the famous song of Frank Sinatra, “My way!” Egoism is always the big obstacle to communication and working together in humble service, deferring to each other in charity. The problem is that everyone wants his or her view to prevail over others. Everyone wants others to listen to him or her rather than find a consensus and seek to work with each other for the common good of all. Without humility in service, we cannot work together and collaborate with each other.

Quite often too, it is because of self-interest. We are doing things to protect our turf, our comfort zone and our convenience. We are not willing to change or make changes or accept correction because it entails disrupting the status quo. Some of us like to cling on to our office and our position for fear that others who take over would not do things the way we like and the things we want. We still want to be in control. Hence, to retain our rein over others, we cling to power and office.

Quite often, we see cronyism also at work in the Church and in organisations. Many who wish to volunteer their services are marginalised and excluded because they are a threat to the status quo and the likes and whims of the leader. Cronyism breeds jealousy, frustration and stifles growth and initiative. Indeed, if one finds that their organisation is not growing well and lacking in dynamism, it is because the leaders are holding office for too long! Worse still, they only recruit into office those who are able to “carry” them.

Consequently, such an attitude will only encourage gossiping and backbiting. We should not be surprised that authorities and leaders who are not receptive to differing views or are not able to engage in humble, open and sincere dialogue in total impartiality and objectivity are the ones most prone to promoting cronyism. Because of fear and lack of legitimate avenues for venting and expressing their unhappiness, the weak and disgruntled will resort to gossiping, slandering, rumour mongering, making presumptions, and causing more misunderstandings, hurts, injustices and injuries to each other. So long as there is no objectivity, there is no way to verify facts and seek clarification. Uncharitable words and actions will only worsen the problem and make the issue more protracted.

All these will give an opportunity to the devil to have a foothold in us. This is what St Paul wrote, “Be angry but do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and do not make room for the devil.” (Eph 4:26f) When someone is serving in the ministry or working in Church with lots of resentment, anger and unhealed hurts and wounds, and because these feelings will not go away with time, the Devil will exploit these ill feelings to fester into revenge and hatred.

WHAT then is the way forward? Once again, St John Paul II wrote of the necessary prerequisite before ministry to build a spirituality of communion. How can we promote and foster this spirituality of communion?

First and foremost, we need to underscore and remind our Church workers and ministry members to put personal and communal prayer in the forefront of all their activities.

St John Paul II wrote, “It is an essential demand of life in Christ that whoever enters into communion with the Lord is expected to bear fruit: ‘He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit” (Jn 15:5). So true is this that the person who does not bear fruit does not remain in communion: “Each branch of mine that bears no fruit [my Father] takes away” (Jn 15:2). Communion with Jesus, which gives rise to the communion of Christians among themselves, is the indispensable condition for bearing fruit; and communion with others, which is the gift of Christ and his Spirit is the most magnificent fruit that the branches can give.” (Church in Asia, 24)

I have already written earlier that prayer must come before ministry and that every Church ministry and organisation must get their members and workers to pray as they work and serve in the Church. It would be good to refer to this pastoral letter again. No prayer, no ministry! Personal and communal prayer is indispensable for the fruitfulness in our mission. The failure to pray is an indication of pride, thinking that we can accomplish the mission of Christ without His help and without His grace. Church workers and volunteers must make time for their personal prayer life and make time to pray with the members of the community. It cannot be left to chance but it must be organised and we must stay disciplined and not compromise our prayer life.

Secondly, there must be a deeper love for the Word of God. Every Catholic must be imbued and be immersed with the Word of God. He or she must be praying the Word of God every day alone in meditation and contemplation; and with others in the community, especially in small groups, whether in the office, neighbourhood, ministries or just among friends. By regularly sharing the Word of God together, we begin to feel with and for each other in our struggles to be more faithful to the gospel; and in edifying each other by sharing how Christ has helped us in our daily life, we inspire each other to see Christ in our daily life.

Thirdly, we must create opportunities for bonding among workers and ministry members. Fostering communion cannot be left to chance. We must create venues and occasions deliberately. There should be time for community prayers during the day, occasional meals out together, as a group or in small groups, celebrating each other’s significant and memorable events of their lives, e.g. birthdays and anniversaries, visiting each other and their loved ones when they are sick or in bereavement, etc.  Whilst it is not the best, we must have “organised joy.” Initially, it might seem artificial but later on, natural joys will take place when people get to know each other, trust each other, and enjoy each other, seeing the goodness in each other and not just their few imperfections. When there is love, we will overlook the faults of others. Any correction will be done purely out of love without self-interest and with sensitivity, respect and charity. Of course, ideally, members should also take the initiative in organising informal gatherings among themselves, like going for a walk or for a drink.

Fourthly, to build community we need to create structures for dialogue. Without dialogue, there will always be misunderstandings and friction. So every organisation and every department in each organisation and parish must have proper structures in place, not just for show, but to promote open, sincere and meaningful dialogue. We should never fear the truth about ourselves and our organisation, for the truth will set us free. In the archdiocese, we have tried to engage different groups and organisations and institutions so that there will be greater alignment in our vision and mission for the whole archdiocese instead of each organisation doing their own thing and sometimes at odds and against the overall direction of the archdiocese.

We must always avoid being parochial minded, always thinking of our own group, parish or organisation because we are Catholic, meaning, universal and one body of Christ, the Church. A Catholic who is only concerned for his organisation or even his own parish or even diocese is not Catholic. A Catholic supports the universal Church beyond his particular parish and diocese. Every group must be in sync with the organisation, and every organisation with the parish, and every parish with the archdiocesan offices and every archdiocesan body with the council of priests and all consultors and senators with the archbishop. There should be regular periodical community, ministry or staff meetings to brief members of the community and also to iron out challenges and difficulties. Where necessary, structures must be reformed and updated to meet new challenges. Keeping to customs and old structures for the sake of sentimentalism will cause the Church to be redundant. There are no sacred cows that we cannot sacrifice to God for His greater glory, regardless how attached we are to past traditions and customs.

Fifthly, where there are differences and conflicts, there must also be established avenues for proper recourse for justice and settlement. There must be transparency, objectivity and total impartiality in the handling of grievances and resolutions. However, it must be done with charity, sensitivity and justice. Following the command of our Lord, difficulties with errant members of the community must first be dealt personally between the two persons concerned. When dialogue fails, then they must get someone among them who can mediate and find a happy solution. Only when this fails, should we bring it to the authority which is always the last resort, not the first instance, to seek justice.

In this archdiocese, we have in place a “Process for Conflict Resolution” which is found on the archdiocesan website. Please read it again. I would like all to follow the proper channels for complaints so that all complaints can be dealt with in Christian justice and charity. The archbishop and the archdiocese do not entertain anonymous complaints as justice demands that those accused must be given a chance to clarify themselves. What I have done for the archdiocese, I expect the rank and file in the parishes and ministries to also have in place proper channels for settling misunderstandings, quarrels and differences.

Sixthly, we must have constant renewal in leadership. Leaders must constantly be on the lookout for new leaders to replace them once they are in office. We should never allow a leadership vacuum to happen. Bad leaders are those who allow themselves to be in office without any replacement. They must be actively forming and mentoring leaders to take over their office so that there will be constant renewal. Leaders who have served their term should not drop out completely after their service is over but offer their expertise in other areas where the Church needs them. So leaders must not, if possible, stay too long in office. They must humbly tender their resignation so that there is constant renewal of leadership. There should be a term of office and no one should hold office for too long. Otherwise, cronyism will enter the Church and this will hamper creativity and renewal.

On my part as the archbishop, I am already seeking out who can take over my office when the time comes for me to retire. My hope is that I do not have to finish the full term which ends at the age of seventy-five. Of course, this requires the consent of the Holy Father. I pray that a younger, more holy, dynamic, prayerful, discerning, wise, dedicated, selfless and visionary priest with a passion for Christ and His Church will be ready to take over from me when the time comes. As far as I am concerned, my task is to upgrade the infrastructure and put a system of governance in place so that the future archbishop can simply focus on the work of evangelisation. It is my conviction that when someone can do the job better, then it is time and also an obligation for me to step aside and retire from my office! I am always conscious that I must place the interest of the Church before mine. It would be tragic if one day I become an obstacle for the progress of the Church. God forbid!

AS LEADERS too, since we are keepers of the vision and responsible for the unity of our group or organisation, we must promote collaboration, not micro manage our organisation. There should not be any form of dictatorial control over the group but we must work together in a collaborative ministry. We must promote the principle of subsidiarity and empowerment of our members and staff. There must be room for making mistakes and for improvements. Instead of uncharitable remarks, we must encourage words that give life and heal, not destroy.

St Paul reminds us, “Let no evil talk or harmful words come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.” (Eph 4:29f) The way of encouragement, affirmation and appreciation will go a long way in promoting collaboration and joy in ministry and service. Leaders must take personal interest in each and every one of their staff or member under their charge, their well-being, their spiritual life and capacity for growth in their ministry and work. They are shepherds in their own right, caring for the weak, strengthening those who are strong and healing those who are wounded.

For this reason, leaders must give special attention to the weak and hurting members of their community and organisation. Attempts must be made to reach out to them, to hear their stories without being judgemental or defensive. With an open mind and humble heart, we must seek to engage them. They need our love and understanding and, most of all, a listening ear and an empathetic heart to feel with them in their struggles and to empower them by giving them light in understanding their problems, compassion in their weaknesses and empowerment in the talents that they have. In this way, we heal the wounds of such members and they will become more loving, forgiving and less divisive and negative.

Above all, all those serving in the Church must frequent the celebration of the Eucharist and the sacrament of reconciliation. They should spend time before the Blessed Sacrament in adoration, thanksgiving and praise. They, especially the leaders, should make time for annual retreats of five days’ duration to recharge and reconnect with the Lord. It would be good that staff and ministry members have a reconciliation service once or twice a year, whether with or without a priest for the sacrament so that there could be forgiveness and healing. The humility to ask for forgiveness, especially on the personal level, helps to heal wounds and bring about forgiveness from the heart.

In the final analysis, leaders must walk the talk. Be mentors for future leaders by serving humbly and selflessly. Don’t ask members to do what you cannot do or are not doing. At the end of the day we need leaders who are prayerful, full of faith and dependent entirely on the Lord. Members must pray for their leaders and leaders in turn must pray for those who are working for them and with them. Prayer, fasting and mortification will help a leader to grow in holiness and allow God to make use of them and work through them.

Let me conclude with the exhortation of St John Paul II, “Many things are necessary for the Church’s journey through history, not least in this new century; but without charity (agape), all will be in vain.” It is again the Apostle Paul who in the hymn to love reminds us: even if we speak the tongues of men and of angels, and if we have faith ‘to move mountains’, but are without love, all will come to ‘nothing’ (cf. 1 Cor 13:2). (NMI 42) Lastly, St John Paul II warned us, “Let us have no illusions: unless we follow this spiritual path, external structures of communion will serve very little purpose. They would become mechanisms without a soul, “masks” of communion rather than its means of expression and growth.” (NMI 43)

Archbishop William Goh

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