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Jared Ng

A slow but gradual shift is taking place in the Church to get more laypeople to step into more responsible roles for the Church. When this happens then it would allow the clergy to focus more on their core responsibilities.

What this means is that there must be a mindset change by both laypeople and the clergy and Religious if the Church in Singapore is to remain a body that is run by local priests instead of foreign missionaries. Archbishop William Goh made this call in a special interview with Catholic News.

“There needs to be a paradigm shift in the way we see the role of priests and Religious,” he said. “Priests must be willing to let go of their autonomy over every aspect of the running of the church, especially mundane matters and instead delegate such responsibilities to the lay as they are co-equals and co-responsible in the work of building Church.

“They should focus on the work of formation, proclamation of the Word of God, preparing and delivering inspiring homilies and talks, catechesis, prayer, administering the sacraments, counselling, ministering and pastoring the people, and empowering the laity to undertake work that they are more equipped to do, whilst providing overall direction and supervision for accountability.

“On the other hand, the lay must also learn to accept lay leaders and teachers and not be overly-dependent on the clergy for everything. Some lay leaders, if properly trained, can be good formators and teachers of faith. Unless we have lay leaders who are accepted among the laity, it would be difficult to groom new lay leaders as they would not be accepted by the lay faithful and even by priests and Religious,” said Archbishop Goh.

Setting the background to this call is the startling statistics that fewer than five priests are below the age of 40. There are about 155 priests in Singapore, half of whom are between 40 and 55 years; and the rest above 55 years. The greying population among the clergy and Religious is exacerbated by the decline in young people taking up priestly and Religious vocations.

This has thus accelerated the need for more laypeople to support the Church in Her mission.

“We can import more foreign priests, as we are increasingly doing, to fill the urgent needs of the Church, but this is neither sustainable nor ideal due to the lack of stability and cultural differences. If the local Church is to be truly a local Church, we need to cultivate more local priestly and Religious vocations. Otherwise, we are returning to where we were before, a Church sustained by missionaries from abroad,” he said.

Archbishop Goh pointed out that “even the Apostles recognised the need to devolve some of the responsibilities of Church to the deacons so that they can focus on their core responsibilities, ‘It would not be right for us to neglect the ministry of the word of God in order to wait on tables. Brothers and sisters, choose seven men from among you who are known to be full of the Spirit and wisdom. We will turn this responsibility over to them and will give our attention to prayer and the ministry of the word." (Acts 6:2-4).

The call for more laypeople to come forward was first mentioned on Oct 29 when he spoke at the Catholic Foundation dinner. He said the Church would “diminish” if the laity are not missionary disciples, ready to serve.

“We are not missionary disciples. We are just involved in the mission without being disciples,” he said at the dinner, adding that what the Church needs are lay people who, together with priests and Religious, can form other lay people, by giving retreats and formation.

Training lay teachers

However, before the laity can take over certain roles and responsibilities in the Church, it is imperative that they first become trained, missionary disciples.

Archbishop Goh explained that this would entail “being academically trained for pastoral ministry” and being equipped with the necessary theological and doctrinal knowledge to teach and to form. “They must also be grounded in their spiritual life to be able to share their faith with conviction and passion.”

Once a pool of lay teachers and leaders has been developed, they “can be outsourced to various organisations and groups to train the second echelon of trainers and pastoral leaders.” As part of their preparation for this role, they will need to be “sent for further training, locally and overseas, in dogmatic, moral and pastoral theology, scriptures, canon law, catechetics, communication and other specialties,” he said.

Relying on priests for pastoral formation alone can no longer be the only way because of their limited time and resources spent on ministering to people in the areas of catechesis, sacraments and liturgical celebrations, and administrative responsibilities, said Archbishop Goh.

“Our priests are left with not much time to continue the work of faith and spiritual formation, sometimes not even to conduct RCIA classes, less still, provide ongoing formation for those newly baptised or members serving in ministries or their parishioners at large.”

Therefore, apart from providing organisation, management and administrative support in areas such as human resource, finance, communications and information technology ... we need lay professionals to undertake formation work alongside the priests – give talks, conduct theological and pastoral courses, conduct retreats and seminars, provide counselling, spiritual direction, catechetics, initiate, coordinate and run pastoral programmes, he added.

Scholarships, sponsorships

One potential obstacle of developing lay leaders is the financial cost required to do so. To this, Archbishop Goh said the Church cannot be shy in investing financially in laypeople.

“We need to provide scholarships to sponsor these young lay people who are willing to serve in the Church full-time.

“The Church must not be penny wise and pound foolish. If we are not willing to invest in our laity, in formation and training, we would soon have a laity that is ill-formed and faith that is weak and easily swayed by humanism, relativism and materialism. The Church will soon be redundant because we cannot communicate effectively with the world. We need professional lay people to dialogue with the world and to bring the Gospel values to the world,” he said.

Although there are already some lay people who have received the Church’s financial support to be trained and formed, Archbishop Goh acknowledged that the local Catholic population is still not used to the idea of “sponsoring our laity for full time pastoral and missionary studies and work.”

And, this paradigm shift will take time. “We are overly dependent on volunteers who, much as they like, cannot give all their time to the Church because they have family, community and work commitments,” he added.

Those who have received the Church’s financial support “are expected to contribute back to the Church through service in their respective ministries. This is particularly so for those students who have studied in CTIS as their courses are substantially subsidised by the Archdiocese. More of our Catholics should enrol for courses at CTIS to better equip themselves in their faith so that they can confidently defend and explain their faith to their friends and society. We hope with a better educated laity, they will gain credibility with the people of God who could look up to them for direction and formation.”

Archbishop Goh said funds are needed “not just to build infrastructure, but also for the work of formation, mission and evangelisation. We must be willing to commit to the formation of our full-time workers, to upgrade their skills and knowledge. At the same time, we need to subsidise our volunteer workers for pastoral courses so that they can better serve in the ministry.”

“Whilst the lay are encouraged to volunteer their time and services to the Church, not all areas of work can be outsourced to volunteers. Full-time workers are needed to ensure accountability and professionalism. We must be more ready to employ full-time workers and provide them a decent salary for them to sustain their family,” he said. “There are many who are passionate about their faith but they are not able to give themselves to service in the Church full-time because the Church does not give them a reasonable remuneration to sustain their livelihood or look after their family. There is the need to balance between operational costs, infrastructure, teaching, mission and evangelisation. Every aspect is important and they must be considered as a package and not one without the other,” he added.

Promoting religious vocations

Apart from a focus on developing the laity, Archbishop Goh shared some steps the local Church has taken and will need to take to address the shortage of priests and Religious.

“We will continue to encourage and help young people to discern their calling in life, especially those who feel called to the priesthood and Religious life, as we have always done. We do this through awareness-building, vocation promotion programmes, days of recollection, vocation retreats, engagement, empowerment of youth ministries, such as by the Office for Young People and youth groups in our churches, to reach out to young people; helping them to fall in love with Jesus and the Gospel, with a view to interest them in the priesthood or at least full-time ministry in the Church.”

Besides these, he said more faith communities need to be formed because “young people need community to support each other in their faith life. They need to be nurtured in their faith and their personal relationship with the Lord. Getting them to form cell groups to share the Word of God together, praying with and for each other, and having fellowship will help them to experience the love of God in a concrete and personal way. This is why it is necessary to have more full-time youth coordinators who are trained in youth ministry to work in the parish with the young people and for the young people.”

At the heart of faith formation for young people today is the role of catechetics and also the need to strengthen family life, said Archbishop Goh. “Family upbringing, the school environment, interactive catechesis in engaging the young people, social media, and world influence play an all-important part in how our youth are being formed in the faith.”

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