Jared Ng speaks to Catholic NSFs and NSmen about why some remain active in the Church while others leave it

Those who left the Church

There appears to be a phenomenon of some young Catholics leaving the Church while serving National Service (NS).

Does going through NS result in young Catholic men losing touch with their faith?

Six Catholic NSmen Catholic News spoke to shared that they indeed lost touch with their faith during national service, while six others shared that they were and are still able to remain active in Church despite army commitments.

According to those who left the Church, they did so for a number of reasons: the demanding schedule and exhausting physical regime of the army, and also a lack of Church community support.

Others said they had little faith formation and simply no reason to go to church.

One NSman, Xavier (all names in this story have been changed), said the army was “really just tiring, physically and mentally”, adding that “the culture [in army] contradicts what the Church is trying to say and promote.”

Before enlisting, Xavier said he “idled a bit in terms of my faith by only attending Mass,” adding that “there wasn’t a visible youth scene in my church at that time.”

In army, his peers convinced him to join them at clubs and he soon picked up smoking and drinking. All these habits played a significant role in causing him to further stray from the Church, he said.

Another NSman, Justin, said he lost track of his faith in army despite being involved in his parish youth ministry for five years before enlistment.

The physical regime “left me exhausted during the weekends” and I would stay home instead of attending community sessions, he said.

During Basic Military Training (BMT), Justin said he started using vulgarities and going to clubs with his bunk mates.

He stopped praying and said that he felt himself becoming a different person.

Chris, another NSman, said he “never felt the need” to go for Mass even though he could have. One reason was because the music ministry he was previously part of focused too much on its task and lacked faith formation programmes.

The group rarely had sessions that focused on prayer or the Bible, and because of that he never really had opportunities to reflect upon his faith, he said.

Although he did make an effort to keep in touch with other ministry members after enlistment, Chris said there was nothing much to talk about after a while.

Another NSman, Mark, said he initially wanted to remain involved with his youth group while in army, but was “hurt and lost” when he felt they were not supportive. He decided to move on from his “Church phase” and got involved in bad company with his army peers.

“I started using vulgarities and did a lot of things that were contradictory to my faith,” he said.

Mark said he also stopped attending Mass as he “didn’t want to see any members” from his youth group.

Another NSman said his faith took a “big hit” in army because he was bullied.

During BMT, Jonathan tried to help his peers by taking the lead during exercises and drills and constantly reminding
everyone to obey the rules.

As a result, he got labelled “wayang soldier” by his bunk mates and was alienated for his approach.

He tried to take his concerns to prayer and his church youth group but the bullying got worse. The lowest point came when he was given a “blanket party”.

During a “blanket party”, a person is covered by a blanket and held down while being physically beaten and verbally abused.

In almost all their sharings with CN, these men said they eventually lost touch with their faith, lost contact with their youth group members, and stopped praying and attending Mass.

Community support, faith formation

When asked what could have helped them remain active in Church, the most common answer given was a ministry or support group that caters to full-time national servicemen (NSFs).

“Having something like an army formation group for those who are about to enlist and those who have enlisted could be something useful,” said Mark.

“I think it can really give NSFs an avenue to remain in the faith,” he added.

Jonathan concurred. Having a community “for army personnel could be beneficial as NSFs will know they have somewhere they belong, he said.

Xavier added that an army peer support group would “help a lot” because “the army journey can really take a big toll on our faith.”

Better faith formation programmes before and during NS was another suggestion.

Chris, who felt that the lack of faith formation in his ministry played a significant part in him leaving the Church, said, “I would say faith formation is the most important thing for me. Having a community to journey with you before and especially during army also helps.”

Another NSman, Jeremy, said that if he was more involved in Church before army, “things may have been different.

However the youth communities ... didn’t really cater to my needs.”

What they could have done

Some of these former NSFs however did admit that they themselves played a part in leaving the Church.

Jonathan said he could have been more “pro-active” in reaching out to his youth group when he was being bullied and alienated in camp.

Justin said he was “perhaps too quick to distance himself from the Church and instead used army as an excuse”.

Jeremy felt that he could have made a bigger effort to attend Mass and look for other youth groups to remain active.

Other suggestions included making a more concerted effort to pray in camp and making time to attend their church community sessions on weekends.

Those who stayed in the Church

Members of Come As You Are (CAYA) shared how the community helped them remain in Church while serving in the army. From left: Julian Stewart, Joshua Chan, Tasha Ng and Darren Lim.

For four members of Come As You Are (CAYA), a community under the Office for Young People (OYP), having a community to lean on after a tough week in the army has allowed them to live and practise their faith.

“Community is a vital need for me, or even a group of friends whom I can share ... concerns with,” said Darren Lim, 20.

“It is important because they can offer solace, advice or just being there for me,” he added.

Darren shared that there are aspects of life in camp that sometimes challenge his faith, such as the use of vulgarities and the “general army culture”. However he constantly reminds himself to be “reasonable and patient”.

Joshua Chan, 20, said that during CAYA sessions, he can share his army troubles knowing that he is in a safe environment.

Being part of CAYA “has really blessed me with people I can rely on,” he said.

During his time in a special army training school, Joshua said he was constantly berated and insulted by his fellow cadets because they did not agree with the way he carried out his duties.

“I felt lousy and alienated and it sort of made me dread army life. The physical regime didn’t really help too,” he shared.

However through the weekly sessions with CAYA, he said he slowly came to terms with these struggles and also began to pray for his fellow cadets.

Another member, Julian Stewart, said, “Whatever difficulties I face in army during the week, I bring back to my community. It is a place where I feel loved and accepted.”

One of his biggest struggle in the army was striving to be Christ-like to his commanders who had “unrealistic expectations and goals” of him.

“It’s difficult to communicate my concerns because they [commanders] don’t listen and it leaves me stressed and under a lot of pressure,” said Julian.

Attending CAYA sessions gave Julian an avenue to share his troubles. He said that his community members remind him that “God is journeying with me”.

“I learnt to let go and let God take over,” he said.

For Tasha Ng, a female army regular, “CAYA has been a good avenue for me to share my experiences and challenges.”

Keeping up with the physical demands of army left Tasha exhausted and because of that, she sometimes forgot to pray.

However, through CAYA sessions, she said she is able to “start each new week strengthened in faith.”

Tasha shared that she decided to join the army after completing junior college because she always wanted to experience what it was like to serve in the military.

The CAYA members also shared other ways in which they practise their faith.

These include reading Archbishop William Goh’s daily reflections online, reflecting on the day’s Gospel, praying before bed and during lull periods in camp, and constantly reminding themselves of God’s presence.

CAYA, founded in March 2016, is a community for young people aged between 17 and 25. They meet every Saturday morning.

To find out more, visit http://oyp.org.sg/oyp-family/caya/.

Relying on each other and community

Full-time national servicemen Ramsay Ho (left) and Timothy Tan shared that they support each other during challenging times in the army.

“Our community has played a big part in keeping us involved in Church,” said Ramsay Ho, 22.

Together with his friend Timothy Tan, 21, they are active in their youth community, Seeds of Faith (SOF), at the Church of Christ the King despite being in NS.

Both Ramsay and Timothy said that the most challenging aspects of army are its physical demands.

“Sometimes I would forget to pray before going to sleep because of how tired I am,” recalled Timothy. Other challenges they shared included the culture shock of being away from their family and friends.

Nevertheless, the pair said that their fellow community members have always been there to remind them of God.

Sometimes while he is in camp, “some of our community members will randomly send me Scripture quotes,” said Ramsay.

Timothy said that he would ask his community members for prayers when his army training got tough.

“They have always been there to listen and support,” he said.

Besides their community, Ramsay and Timothy also found support and encouragement in each another.

“We always talk about stories and experiences [about the army]and it’s easy to share because we can relate to one another,” said Ramsay.

Timothy added that sometimes Ramsay “would ask me to pray for him for something that he is struggling with in army and I ask him for prayers too.”

Although they understand why the army can be seen as an exit from the Church for some, the two friends said that the most important thing is to have a community to lean on.

“They are the main reason why I haven’t strayed from the faith,” said Ramsay.

On top of attending community sessions once a week, Timothy and Ramsay also make it a point to attend events such as Nox Gaudii, an event for young people organised by the Office for Young People (OYP).

Their advice to those enlisting: “Stay positive when you enter army and get the best out of what you can there. Trust in God’s plan for you and have a community that you can rely on for spiritual and social support,” said Timothy.

Ramsay said, “Having a buddy from Church who is enlisting around the same time as you would be good too because then you two can share and support one another.

“If you don’t belong to any youth ministry or community, I know OYP has a few communities that you can join to have a faith support group.” 

What priests have to say

Excerpts of their comments on the issue

OYP chaplain Fr Brian D’Souza (above): ‘What is lacking is a support system that allows these young men (and women) to come, gather, share their struggles and grow in their faith.’

What are your thoughts about NSFs leaving the Church because of the army?

OYP chaplain Fr Brian D’Souza:
This is a sad reality and something needs to be done not only on the diocese level (OYP) but also in the parishes. The situation that we are facing now is the result of our poor faith formation for the Sacrament of Confirmation.

What is lacking is a support system that allows these young men (and women) to come, gather, share their struggles and grow in their faith.

The structure of community is missing before and after receiving the sacrament.

That being said I must admit that most of the time these boys and girls have other priorities over God, their studies and having their own direction in life. Their parents too do not show support and encouragement in wanting to build their child’s faith.

Fr Cornelius Ching: Many are not active after receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation ... There is no strong community and ministry support that they have gotten involved in. Even if there are efforts to reach out to them, they are still relatively shy as there is little or no peer network to bring them back and make them stay.

Is this something you have noticed in parishes?

​Fr Jovita Ho: Yes, this challenge of youths disappearing from parishes is something that I have noticed and it is even more so if the youth comes from a family whose familial bonds are lacking, or who do not have a culture of going to church together.

I think there is also evidently a sense of lack of time to “do their own things” that contributed to them dropping off from the radar or they feel that whatever they used to do, they don’t seem qualified anymore or too old to do.

Are there any OYP communities or activities that can reach out to these people?

Fr Jude David: I would say the the School of Witness (SOW) and CAYA are two specific aspects of OYP’s pastoral ministry that have a higher concentration of young men who are either preparing for NS or have just ORDed.

Fr Brian: We do have Nox Goudi – a once in two months gathering for young people at OYP. This could be an opportunity for NSFs to join in the larger community to worship, praise and be formed through the teaching of the night.

Fr Jovita Ho (above): Reinstate SAF Day Masses – we used to have them till quite a few years ago. Youth communities and parishes must also be aware and accommodating towards the limitation of members [who are] serving the nation, when it comes to time and alertness.

How can youth groups better reach out to those who have stopped attending Church because of national service?

Fr Jude: I think that having strong faith communities that cradle these young people through their various stages of growth would have been ideal but it is not a model that is very widely used in our parish communities.

I think another aspect that would help is if our young people who have encountered God are active in evangelising.

Young people are the best evengelists of other young people and the witness of their lives would be the best inspiration and draw for our NSFs who have left the Church.

Fr Cornelius: I feel the most important thing is to have an active youth programme/community and constantly reach out to them via peer support networks. Word-of-mouth and peer support are the best means.

​Fr Jovita: It is not wholly the army’s fault that our youths are leaving the Church during NS, but rather it is because we have not prepared these young men either for national service or even regular service.

Even for youths who are actively involved in parishes, youth communities and such, how intentionally have we been in preparing them (and perhaps their families) for national service? What can we do? Start young with communities rooted in the person of Jesus and the Gospel. Mentor those who are preparing for the army.

Have a send off Mass of sorts for the young people to let them know the community is praying for them, and to let the community know that sons among them are serving the nation so that NS can be seen as a Christian duty as well, and it is!

Reinstate SAF Day Masses – we used to have them till quite a few years ago. Youth communities and parishes must also be aware and accommodating towards the limitation of members [who are] serving the nation, when it comes to time and alertness.

It is also important either for the communities to “hear” about army experiences or for the communities or parishes to have a sub-group to cater to the reality of these men serving NS.

What can family and friends of the individual in the army do to help him during his time in the army?

Fr Jude: Continue to pray, lovingly accompany and discerningly encourage these young men to continue to pursue the Lord. I think we should also try to break away from the stereotype that NS is always a time of spiritual decadence.

I know of people and from the experience of my own life where this stereotype was not true and NS was actually a time of grace for me to search more deeply about my faith because I am not bogged down by studies and all. The time of being away from home and sometimes challenging training in NS can also be an impetus to truly seek the Lord and depend on Him even more.

Fr Cornelius: The first thing family and friends can do is to stop pressuring them to come for Church activities. It is first to bring them for the Eucharistic celebration and let them experience feeling loved by God.

Next would be to invite them gently to the activities or communities. Using language like “maybe you would like to visit the youth gathering on …” rather than “you should go for this youth gathering. It is good for you …” will definitely help.

Fr Jovita: Be present and be understanding about the irregular hours and timetable of the son and the friend serving NS. Always assure them of your availability and presence, and listen to them.

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