Anthony Choo and his brother Paul stayed away from the Church for 20 years. Things changed when Anthony’s wife had difficulty giving birth to their son Gaius; this and the desire to have Gaius baptised led Anthony and Paul back to the Church. Anthony shares his story here. Paul shares his below.
FOR ALMOST 20 years I turned my back on God.
I work in the financial services industry and in spite of the current difficult times, my career has been soaring. I never doubted that I got here by my own hard work, like so many other achievements in my life. I mould my own destiny. Or so I thought.
On Nov 6, 2008, my wife Karen was set to deliver our first child. For almost 10 hours she was under induced labour; her cervix could not open wide enough for natural birth; her blood pressure was rising and the infant’s heart beat was a little irregular. The gynaecologist decided to recommend a Caesarean section, which we agreed to. I remember that day like it was yesterday. The thought of a loved one having to go under the knife is not easy to bear, and the operation was going to happen almost immediately. The lives of my wife and my child were at stake.
I then did the unimaginable. I prayed aloud, together with Karen. We prayed to God to protect us in this uncertainty. For 20 years I was invincible, but that day I crumbled. Little did I realise it was the beginning of my return to Jesus Christ, and the end of my sojourn with naivety.
In case you are wondering, my son Gaius Choo came out fine. He is six-and-a-half months old now. Karen is well, and back to work. The birth of Gaius did not immediately cause me to return to the Church. What did, was an initial attempt at baptising Gaius; it turned into a signing up with Landings Ministry for both Paul (my brother and Gaius’ eventual godfather) and me. Like me, Paul had left the Church, and for almost the same amount of time.
Concerning Landings, I was a big sceptic at first. Paul and I were the ones who had been away longest in our group. However, the sessions were non-doctrinal; there was no attempt to impose “right” and “wrong” on participants. Everyone spoke about their lives and gave their views, and everyone else listened. No one was judged. That, for many of us, was very important.
On the ninth week of Landings my father was admitted into the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) for psychiatric treatment. He had fallen into depression and was suffering from anxiety disorder. It was a difficult time. The 10th and final week of Landings involved a two-day-one-night retreat at FMM House. Paul and I went to the retreat and missed the first weekend visit to Dad at IMH.
That night the Holy Spirit came to me, (I think), moments before the sacrament of reconciliation (my first in 20 years). I was still struggling to describe that feeling months after that night. I have heard people talk about it but never understood until then. I felt the sky open. I felt God’s mercy, on someone like me who had turned away for so long. I felt Jesus’ death on the Cross for me, and realised that no sacrifice I claim to make for anyone can surpass that sacrifice which He freely accepted.
Dad was discharged after five weeks, which was much faster than we had expected. The following Sunday we walked into church victorious. Dad is non-Catholic. We have been back to Church ever since. The Bible is my best read after the Financial Times, every day at work.
My life has changed tremendously since that Landings retreat. My attitude to certain life issues have become less cumbersome since knowing that I no longer walk alone. Perhaps I never did.
Paul thought Landings sessions would “bore him to death”, but he was in for a surprise
I WAS BAPTISED as a Catholic when I was two or three years old, and went to catechism classes with my older brother Anthony till I was about 10. We did not really care that much about church then, often sneaking off after Sunday classes to avoid Mass and then head home for Sunday morning cartoons on TV. We stopped going to church after moving away from our old neighbourhood, about 20 years ago. That was as far as my childhood religion went.
I was agnostic even before I knew what the word meant. I suppose when I was younger it was difficult to grasp the concept of an invisible all-mighty being – it did not get any easier when I got older. Even though my mother was a Catholic, our family was quite secular in terms of lifestyle.
Thus Church and religion did not matter in my life. If I was at Mass it was because I was in a Catholic secondary school and the teachers would force me to go during special occasions.
In recent years I have been reading arguments for and against the existence of God, largely sourced from the Internet. It has always been easier for me to relate to arguments that denounce the existence of God.
Yet, I have met some very intelligent people – lawyers, scientists, doctors – who seem to have so much faith in God, and I just could not understand how that is possible. Men and women of science! How can that be? I used to think up explanations for their behaviour: Perhaps they were feeling desperate in some way and this was an attempt to seek solace in some invisible being; or maybe they were just weekend Catholics, because they seemed to be horrible people during the week.
I never felt that I needed God.
In the end, after fruitless (sometimes half-hearted) research on my part, I realised that the most logical place to start looking for some answers would be… the Church! I tried. I went to Church of the Holy Spirit a few years ago when I returned to Singapore after studying overseas. I met with Father Andrew Wong, who, after hearing about my background, suggested that I first go for Mass instead of RCIA (Landings was not available then.) But I found that going to Mass alone after 20 years of absence was extremely intimidating, so I gave up.
When my nephew Gaius was born, my brother Anthony suddenly came up to me and asked if I was willing to be the kid’s godfather. I was quite surprised, as my brother had been as sceptical of religion as I had been. Apparently he had an epiphany of sorts when Gaius was born, and thought that Gaius should be brought up as a Catholic – for the moral values, if nothing else. It was only logical then that we started going back to church to re-learn about the faith, and find out how to get Gaius baptised.
Fortunately my brother came across an ad in CatholicNews (Page 4 in this issue) for Landings, and it seemed perfect for us.
I had absolutely no expectations of Landings. Well, that’s not entirely true. I had expected to be bored to death. I still remember being in the car on the way to our first session, and my brother and I agreed we should be able to pull off 10 sessions and get Gaius baptised – which was our actual goal.
I felt some anxiety. Would I be quizzed on my knowledge of the Bible? Twenty years was a long time to be away, and my memory of the Bible was as vague as some old Enid Blyton fairy tale that I had read as a child. I also wondered if Landings was a ploy to lure non-active Catholics back to church.
Surprisingly I actually found Landings sessions enjoyable and looked forward to them. I hoped that Landings would help me find some answers to questions about faith in God.
Tony See, the coordinator (who started another group specially on Sundays for my brother and me), had said to us, “we won’t judge you on your level of faith” when we first attended Landings. That was very comforting. We were welcomed with open arms, and the people at Landings were very warm. I also found a lot of support from Landings when my father was ill and hospitalised. I am still amazed at the sincerity and warmth shown by my brothers and sisters in Landings.
The only difficult part of the programme was during the initial session, when I did not know what to expect. My journey through the 10 weeks has been quite a strange one: It started from the desire to get my nephew baptised, resulted in me actually enjoying it, and then seeing my father hospitalised and eventually recovering well enough to join us at Mass – one of the happiest days of my life.
I think holding discussions in small groups is a fantastic idea, and I like the feeling of a community in church. It could be that Landings is a relatively young ministry, and hence the framework is not very rigid. I find that flexibility actually refreshing. I realise also that there are many ways to return to the Church.
Spiritually, I think I am still agnostic, although I am starting to see the possibility that certain events in my life are not just pure coincidences. I have started to go to Mass – thanks to the friends I have made from Landings – and Mass is actually enjoyable now. I want to continue to be a part of Landings for other returning Catholics and to discover more about God.
This friendly, non-judgemental route home to the Church for inactive Catholics is available at Holy Spirit parish.
SINGAPORE – If you know of a Catholic who left the Church and wants to return but doesn’t know how, bring him to a priest or to Landings.
Landings, a programme started by Paulist Father Jac Campbell in U.S.A. about 20 years ago, is available at Church of the Holy Spirit.
Landings works like this: Six to eight practising Catholics form a group with two or three returning Catholics and meet for 10 sessions of two hours each over 10 weeks. Group members share their faith stories and learn about Church teaching in the process. The emphasis is on compassionate and non-judgemental listening, and confidentiality. When necessary, participants may be referred to professional help. The 10 sessions conclude with a weekend retreat and Mass.
Holy Spirit parish invited Director of Landings Father James Moran to Singapore last November to present the programme to the archdiocese and to conduct a two-day workshop for those interested to start Landings in their own parishes.
Following that, individuals from six parishes, and members sent by the New Evangelization Team (NET), participated in the 10-week process with the Holy Spirit team.
Diana Koh from NET joined Landings to discern if it is appropriate as a form of “evangelisation and re-evangelisation” for NET.
“Landings seems to be such a ‘simple’ programme – no great theology here – and we [at NET] believe that it is because of this simplicity that God has the space to work marvellous things!” Ms Koh said. “What moved us at the end was the manifestation of God’s power in bringing the ‘returnees’ back home.”
Church of the Holy Trinity is one parish keen to form this ministry. Parishioner Ana M. J. (photo) attended Father James Moran’s workshop at the behest of Father Timothy Yeo to assess this programme.
“When I attended his workshop, I felt this programme would be what most returning Catholics would need. If it was six years ago, I would’ve been very happy to go for it, as that was when I was coming back to the Church but didn’t have any community or friends that could’ve helped me make my journey easier,” Ms M. J. explained.
She then joined the run ending March to see how the ministry actually worked, telling herself that she need not share “my experiences, my brokenness” but to just “sit back and watch”.
“However, what I did not know was that while others shared their life experiences, hurts and pains, I began to see mine too, in a different light,” she said. “I started to share my life story and I know talking about it opens up our vulnerability, but I never felt that... in fact, coming together as a community built trust and fellowship. It was the most comforting act from Jesus.”
“It is a very easy-going programme and sharing is the key,” Ms M. J. added. “I would think that anyone trying to come back would be made comfortable knowing he is not being judged nor forced to participate until ready.”
This is not a session where all the returnee’s questions or anger over religion and Church matters can be answered but it is a journey where members of the group help each other move forward to Jesus, she explained.
Ms M. J. and the parish priest of Holy Trinity, Father Johnson Fernandez, are exploring how Landings will work at Church of the Holy Trinity and Church of Divine Mercy and perhaps “for the community in the east”.
For Ms M. J., the Landings experience isn’t over; she is sharing this programme with others.
“I use my past experience to motivate me, knowing that we all need someone to help us in our journey and growth, and how difficult it is to come back to Church on our own,” she explained. “Being in a community makes it easier. And witnessing others go through their own transformation, watching God work in them, makes me even more sure that Landings is the programme that reaches out to returning Catholics.”
A new process begins Jul 13. Visit www.landings.org.sg
By Joyce Gan