Ambassadors for Christ to the World
FATHER THEOPHILE VERBIST and four CICM missionaries set out East from Belgium in 1865. Their arrival in Xiwanzi, Inner Mongolia, sowed the seed of the Christian faith for the first time in that land. Overcoming the harsh terrain, severe weather, vast distances and language difficulties, the CICM missionaries organised small Christian communities, ran an orphanage and school, and trained seminarians. However, in 1868, just three years after arriving in Mongolia, Father Verbist succumbed to typhoid fever. He was only 45. Nevertheless Father Verbist's missionary zeal inspired others and the CICM congregation expanded.
There are now 999 CICM missionaries throughout the world, including one cardinal, 11 bishops, and 807 priests. Records indicate that as many as 40 CICM missionaries have been martyred since the congregation's founding. Many missionary initiatives started by CICM members are handed over to the local clergy once the local church is established; the missionaries themselves move on to newer challenges.
The specific goal of the CICM is to commit itself entirely to the proclamation of the Good News wherever a missionary presence is most needed, especially in remote areas among peoples where the Gospel is not known.
Congregation founded to help poor and needy in China
Father Theophile Verbist was born in Antwerp, Belgium in 1823. He was a diocesan priest in Brussels, when, inspired by the work of the Holy Childhood which took care of abandoned children in the Far East and other parts of the world, he felt that he too should do something more for the poor and needy in China. In 1862, at the age of 39, he founded the Congregation of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (CICM) in Scheut, a suburb of Brussels, Belgium (hence their popular name, Scheut Missions).
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CICM in Singapore
Right, CICM Fathers Frans de Ridder, Robert Sarwiseso, Angel Luciano, Paul Staes, and Romeo Yu Chang pose for a group photo at the Church of St Michael.
THE FIRST CICM member arrived in Singapore in 1931 when Father Richard Quintens (1892- 959) was assigned from China. He took up residence at 24 Nassim Road, which was to serve as a resting house for CICM missionaries passing by to and from China.
When China was taken over by the Communist regime in the 1950s, four CICM missionaries who were expelled from China came to Singapore. Among them was Bishop Carlo van Melckebeke (1898-1980) of the diocese of Ningxia. He was appointed Apostolic Visitator of the Chinese diaspora by the Holy See. In 1955, he started "Hai Sing Pao" (the Chinese Catholic newspaper) in Singapore. The Carlo Catholic Society, which today runs a Chinese and English bookshop at Queen Street, is named after Bishop van Melckebeke.
Also expelled from China was Father Antoon Schotte (1905-1980) who started the parish of Holy Spirit in 1960 and who was responsible for the completion of its first church building in 1964. Bishop Melckebeke and Father Schotte died in 1980, on consecutive days.
The CICM House at Nassim Road was also the birthplace of Marriage Encounter, as well as a religious instruction course later adopted by the Archdiocesan Commission for Missionary Activity.
Today there are seven CICM members in Singapore including Father Louis Fossion, who was parish priest of the Church of the Holy Spirit for 28 years, but is now retired and residing at Bethany, a home for elderly priests in Upper Thomson Road. The other six CICM priests in Singapore serve in parishes, and also in pastoral care of migrants, seafarers and prisoners, and in inter-religious dialogue. Vocation and mission animation is another priority.
Always faithful to their founder's concern for the people of China, the CICM members here continue to participate in programmes for missionary work for China in collaboration with other CICM members and the laity in Taiwan and Hong Kong. Since 1997, the CICM residence is in an apartment in Pandan Valley where at present only two members reside. All the CICM members meet once a week to share on mission experiences, and have recreation together.
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Two Singaporean CICM priests
Father Peter Koh (left) entered the CICM in 1988 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1997 at his parish of Christ the King. He served in Zambia for 10 years before his current assignment in Rome as CICM's Assistant Treasurer General. "While there are also many challenges in Singapore, I felt that my calling was to work as a missionary abroad, living among other people of another culture," he said.
(left) entered the CICM in 1988 and was ordained to the priesthood in 1997 at his parish of Christ the King. He served in Zambia for 10 years before his current assignment in Rome as CICM's Assistant Treasurer General. "While there are also many challenges in Singapore, I felt that my calling was to work as a missionary abroad, living among other people of another culture," he said.
"The most rewarding experience so far as a CICM priest is being able to live in another country, and to be accepted by others who are different from me. In Zambia I lived among the poor and it is a joy to be able to participate in their joys and sorrows and to be with them in their quest for a better life.
"I also feel very much supported by my friends and benefactors in Singapore. In this way I feel also like a bridge between the church in Singapore and the church in Zambia."â–
Right, Father Anthony Lim relaxes with CICM pre-novices in Zambia where he is on mission.
Father Anthony Lim joined the CICM in 1992 and has been serving in Zambia since 1995. He was ordained at the Church of the Holy Cross in 1999 and is currently the formator of CICM candidates in Zambia.
joined the CICM in 1992 and has been serving in Zambia since 1995. He was ordained at the Church of the Holy Cross in 1999 and is currently the formator of CICM candidates in Zambia.
"I was attracted to join the CICM Missionaries through the stories I read from the Missionhurst magazine," he said. "My most rewarding experience as a CICM priest was when we had the blessing of the new church in Chibuluma Parish in November 2002.
"For more than three years we worked together to build the new church and in the process we also built up our Christian community. With the generous contributions we received from the church of Singapore and other parts of the world, we were able to procure the materials needed and build the church ourselves. It was indeed a joyful day for me and the parishioners when the bishop came to bless the new church which was literally built by our hands." â–
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Apostle of the Sea
The late Pope John Paul II once noted in "Motu Proprio", his apostolic letter on the maritime apostolate, that "the seafaring world has become a missionary world." Undertaking this mission to seafarers in Singapore is CICM priest, Father Romeo Yu Chang. He shares on his call to the CICM and life as an apostle of the sea with Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp.
Right, Father Romeo Yu Chang visits up to four cruise or cargo vessels a day. His ministry is basically "a ministry of welcome" for the crew of these vessels.
FATHER ROMEO YU CHANG, 45, is the youngest of the CICM confreres based in Singapore. He is also the youngest in his Chinese Filipino family of 12 children from Bicol, Philippines. In 1980, he entered the CICM seminary in Baguio City. "The main attraction for me was the missions," he says. "On top of that, their seminary was in Baguio (a popular hill resort) which is nice and cool," he adds with a smile.
He went to Hong Kong in 1986 for his theological studies, was ordained to the priesthood in his home town of Naga in 1990, and then served as assistant parish priest in Hong Kong. After a total of eight years in Hong Kong, he was recalled to the Philippines to serve as Provincial Treasurer of the CICM Philippine Province.
While serving as treasurer, Father Romeo added an MBA to his first degree in Psychology. In 2000, when his six-year term as treasurer ended, he took a one-year sabbatical year at the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Father Romeo was then assigned to Singapore to be port chaplain, a position that had been vacant for 10 years.
The late Scheut Father Balthazar Chang, the previous port chaplain, had retired in 1990 and no Catholic chaplain had replaced him. Although it was a totally new ministry for him, Father Romeo nevertheless approached it with great enthusiasm. To facilitate his ministry, he stays at the Church of St. Teresa, the parish nearest to the ports. Father Romeo's ministry which takes care of the spiritual needs of seafarers is known among Catholics in the maritime world as Stella Maris - the Apostleship of the Sea.
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Left, Father Romeo Yu Chang poses for a photo with the crew of a cargo vessel.
He visits up to four cruise or cargo vessels a day. Although Father Romeo is sometimes requested to conduct Mass on vessels that call here regularly, "at times, it's just a quick visit as the seafarers have not much time," he says. "I distribute some literature, including CatholicNews, as well as Bibles. It's basically a ministry of welcome."
He says his work is just "a drop in the ocean" as there are many vessels coming to Singapore which is the busiest port in the world.
As he is the only Catholic chaplain in the maritime apostolate, he works together with chaplains of other Christian denominations in coordinating activities. One ecumenical effort is the International Drop-in Centre at Finger Pier. He elaborates, "This centre is open from 10am to 10pm for seafarers, where they can pick up free Bibles, literature on the faith, purchase phone cards, and use the internet or phones."
The centre is a home away from home where seafarers are warmly welcomed. There they have the opportunity to meet chaplains, and savour some quiet and peace away from the hustle and bustle of their ships. The most rewarding aspects of his ministry, Father Romeo reveals, is that "even though I meet most of the seafarers very briefly, they remember me." Most of his work entails counselling and ministering the sacrament of reconciliation. "The seafarers miss their families a lot," he shares.
"Their work is obviously not good for family life. Many end up having relationship problems, developing casual relationships, and for the married, problems of infidelity due to loneliness. It's an area that brings out their humanity. However it is changing. Seafarers are getting more responsible and if given the chance, many prefer to go back home and establish a business rather than work at sea."
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For Father Romeo, one of the disadvantages in his ministry to seafarers is the short term relationship he has with them which prevents community building. He compensates for this through his relationship with the parishioners and priests in his parish of St. Teresa. He discloses, "I draw strength from the parishioners, especially during festive occasions, and when we celebrate the Eucharist as a community."
In his free time, Father Romeo likes to work out in the gym "to be fit and strong" as he needs "stamina to climb the gangways." With his MBA background and previous work as treasurer, he also likes to read books on business and to keep track of business news and the stock market.
"Our CICM headquarters in Rome do make investments for the mission so I also keep track of certain industries," he reveals. "It also helps keep my mind alert." Father Romeo's energy is devoted mostly to his ministry as port chaplain where he faces many challenges. One difficulty is getting volunteers to help (due to the strict port regulations). With more ships calling at Singapore, he says that more resources must be poured into the Stella Maris maritime apostolate.
Pope John Paul II summed up the challenge of the Apostleship of the Sea as follows: "In fulfilling this mission to seafarers, you face a most challenging and difficult task. You are dealing with people who live in a dispersed milieu. They face painful problems, such as separation from family and friends, and the resulting feelings of isolation and loneliness; for extended periods of time they live and work at a great distance from a territorial parish. In a real sense the seafaring world has become a missionary world."
This is a mission that Father Romeo's CICM formation has trained him well for. "The CICM charism is such that you are always sent abroad so we are trained to be adaptable, globalise in outlook, ready to meet different races, and be respectful of different cultures," he explains.