“I’m very proud to be a Catholic!”
This was the sentiment expressed by participants after the Joy SG50 Thanksgiving celebration on July 4.
About 10,000 people, including about 1,800 volunteers, packed the Singapore Indoor Stadium to give thanks for the nation’s 50 years of existence. During the five-and-a-half hour event, they listened to stirring speeches from guest-of-honour, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, and Archbishop William Goh, as well as a special message from Pope Francis himself.
However, for many, it was the sight of priests, Religious and laity performing song-and-dance items together after the Mass that made a deep impression on them.
As Mr Nicholas Lim, who watched the celebration via “live” Internet streaming, put it: “Even from home, we could feel the powerful display of collaboration between the clergy, Religious and laity, and what came out quite clearly was the message of joy and hope for the future Church.”
Taking to the stage as the first speaker for the event, Redemptorist Fr Simon Pereira threw several questions at the crowd.
“Will the Church in Singapore be packed 50 years from today?” he asked. “Yes!” was the resounding response.
“Will the young people still pack the churches?” he asked. “Yes!” shouted back the young people in the audience.
The “tiny seed”, which was the Catholic Church in Singapore 50 years ago, “has grown into a mighty oak tree,” said Fr Simon. “We owe a deep gratitude to all Religious, priests and laypeople who are continuing to build up the Church.”
However, he also noted some “hard truths” for the Church here.
Singapore’s population now stands at 5.47 million of which 3.47 million are residents. The Catholic population stands at 350,000 including permanent residents and immigrants.
The “huge challenges for the Church” in the future, he said, include a low birth rate, rising singlehood, late marriages, married couples having few children and younger people leaving for other cities. However, on the positive side, “the new immigrants are packing the church”, he said.
He predicted that though the Church may encounter turbulent events in the future, “more people will be drawn to God and religion”.
A time of praise and worship followed, led by young people.
Archbishop Goh, in his opening address, noted that the celebration was to pay “special tribute” to the local Church’s “missionary and pioneering priests and Religious, who have given their lives to the service of the people and nation”.
Speaking to the audience, which included Prime Minister Lee and Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, both of whom studied in Catholic schools, Archbishop Goh said that over the years, the Catholic Church has contributed much to the growth of Singapore “not only in education and healthcare but most of all to the moral and social development of our peoples”.
“Today she continues in her mission to recognise the new ‘poor’ in our midst who are vulnerable to … secularisation, moral relativism, individualism, materialism, consumerism and the negative impact of the internet and social media.
“Particularly at risk are our youths and families which form the basic building blocks of society. As stewards of creation, we need also to care for the environment,” he added.
Paying tribute to the government, he noted that “we have a government that is secular but not secularised, as it recognises the important role that religions can play in the moral development of our peoples”.
“We are truly grateful” to the government, he said, “for championing religious harmony, which is especially crucial at a time when religious extremism is threatening the peaceful coexistence of peoples”.
Archbishop Goh said “it behooves the Church to work closely with the state and other religions to prevent moral decadence, to preserve families, to strengthen the marriage institution and to promote justice, peace and harmony”.
Another highlight of the event was a special message from Pope Francis read out by the apostolic nuncio, Archbishop Leopoldo Girelli.
The pope “gives thanks to Almighty God for the many graces bestowed upon your country in the last half century, not least of all through the services freely rendered to the nation by dedicated priests, men and women Religious and lay faithful of the archdiocese”, read the nuncio.
“Pope Francis prays particularly that, as the local and universal Church prepares to celebrate the Jubilee of Mercy, the joyful missionary fervour of Christ’s people will bring abundant fruits to the Church and society in Singapore.
“On this happy occasion, His Holiness invokes upon all Singaporeans the abundant divine blessings of peace and joy,” he said to thunderous applause.
A special video on the history of the Catholic Church in Singapore was then screened after which elderly clergy and Religious, including Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Chia and Fr Robert Balhetchet who were on wheelchairs, took to the stage to enjoy a special tribute.
Prime Minister Lee also took to the stage to greet these pioneer Church leaders and pose for photos with them.
In his address, Mr Lee thanked the Church for its service to the nation.
Appearing emotionally moved during his speech, he commended the Church for bringing “light and hope to many, nurturing the young, moulding people into upright citizens, uplifting the downtrodden, succouring the needy, ministering to the sick, living your faith through your deeds, building a community with sound values and a sense of social responsibility, and duty and obligation to one another”.
He highlighted the Church’s role in education, noting that he himself studied in Catholic High School, and in charity work such as through Caritas.
“Because of you, children from poor homes can get school uniforms, textbooks, stationery and scholarships. Migrant workers receive legal help from the Catholic Lawyers Guild. Terminal patients, in their last days on earth, find care and respite in the Assisi Hospice. You do very good work. Thank you very much,” he said to loud applause.
Mr Lee also thanked the Church for its role in strengthening communal harmony.
“You have been a responsible, reliable and sensitive partner, helping us to strengthen our multi-racial and multi-religious society,” he said.
“You have worked with us in the government to manage delicate interreligious issues. You have been assiduous in building up personal links and trust between Church leaders and leaders of other groups, between Catholics and those of other faiths. And you set the tone for all communities to live peacefully with each other.”
His final words were ones of encouragement: “In times of disquiet, may you continue to offer peace and comfort. To those in distress, may you continue to bring succour and solace. To all the rest of us, may you continue to contribute your spirits, your energies and your guidance to help us find our way forward together.”
Following Mr Lee’s speech, Singaporean singer-songwriter Corrinne May took to the stage to perform Bless Our Singapore, a song she composed for the occasion. A hush fell over the audience as she sang:
O Lord, hear our prayer
Bless this land where we stand
May we be light for our nation
May we be salt for this land
The mood was especially magical in another song when the crowd turned on their smartphones’ flashlights and the darkened stadium glowed with dancing points of light.
In a note to CatholicNews after the event, she said that “it took me a long time” to write Bless Our Singapore. “But from the beginning, a couple of things stood out in my mind. I knew that I wanted to incorporate in the song the mission of the Church to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world.”
She added, “I felt that the song had to also speak of our journey as pilgrims on this earth. Pilgrims on our way to heaven. It had to talk about our mission on earth to ‘restore all things to Christ’.”
“It was so heartwarming to hear all the people at the SG50 Thanksgiving Mass sing along with Bless Our Singapore,” she said.
In his homily during the Mass which followed, Archbishop Goh had the crowd in stitches. He noted that “many people didn’t expect Singapore to survive as a nation”, however, “I want you to know that this tiny red dot is of chilli padi stock, so don’t play play ah!” he said to much laughter.
Commenting on the present-day Church, he said that “today our Catholics are very pro-active... our laity no longer just sit back and let clergy do the work”.
“Unless the laity takes part in the mission of the Church, we have not grown,” he said.
Archbishop Goh also highlighted four qualities that have served Singapore well. These were self-sacrifice, justice and equality, economic development, and moral and spiritual development “Without moral and spiritual foundation, everything would be destroyed,” he said.
“Although Singapore is a secular country, a secular government so to speak, the government is not secularised,” he noted. “The government is pro-religion… they see the importance of religion as fostering moral and spiritual growth. They know that without moral foundation, the future of Singapore would be at stake.”
“How do we ensure the leaders of tomorrow are well grounded in integrity, honesty?” he asked.
“This is where the role of religion is very important.”
The post-Mass segment was a kaleidoscope of music, dance and talent as priests, Religious and laypeople joined hands to put on showstopping numbers.
Students from St Anthony’s Canossian Primary and Secondary Schools wowed the crowd with their percussion performance, followed by a rousing song-and-dance item by a group of singers, dancers and a choir.
Many were amazed to see a seminarian, Br Nicholas Lye, dancing in his cassock, and in perfect sync with his fellow dancers.
Students from CHIJ (Kellock) came onstage next to sing You Are Mine, stealing the hearts of the crowd. Three priests – Jesuit Fr Mark Aloysius, Franciscan Friar Derrick Yap and Carmelite Fr Edward Lim – then sang Fr Mark’s original composition, Lord to Whom Shall We Go.
This was followed by a rendition of Matt Maher and Ed Cash’s As It Is In Heaven by other priests, nuns and laypeople.
The closing medley of Oh Happy Day, Joyful Joyful and Shine Jesus Shine had the crowd on its feet, singing and dancing to the pulsing rhythm.
People CatholicNews spoke to said they thoroughly enjoyed the SG50 celebration.
“Fantastic!” said Ms Maria Koh, 49, from the Church of the Holy Trinity. She added that she never realised that Catholics can be “so very vibrant and energetic. We used to be very quiet compared to other Christians.”
Her daughter, Clarissa, 16 quipped: “I’m very proud to be a Catholic!”
Mr Gabriel Lim, 24, from the Church of St Francis of Assisi, said he felt the event “brought the whole community together as one”.
Mrs Gerry Lim, who watched the entire event at home with her husband, Nicholas, and three children, including her 10-month-old daughter, said, “Our two sons even sang along when the artistes performed Shine, Jesus, Shine at the post-Mass musical!”
Organising committee chairman Friar Derrick Yap, in comments to CatholicNews, said that “the measure of success” of the event “is to see if the participants and those who attended the event have been called to greater faithfulness, if their hearts were moved to praise God, moved to serve God”.
“Many said they were proud to be Catholics, and that’s one of the outcome of the event, but it must not end there,” he said.
“This pride bursting within our souls, must radiate forth as joy and light for others, in terms of how we treat our families, our colleagues, the whole of creation.”
He added, “I see this event as a catalyst, and almost like the Big Bang, and where the energy radiates to, we will have to leave it to the Lord.”
Photos by Dominic Wong
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