AFTER THREE YEARS of work, the results of the first-ever census of the Singapore Catholic population are out.

The picture that emerges is varied. Eight in 10 Catholics in Singapore say they attend Mass every weekend, which is high compared to 48 percent in the Philippines, 33 percent in the United States, and 17 percent in the United Kingdom.

But the level of engagement is low, with nearly half saying they don’t do anything else church-related beyond going to Mass. Seven in 10 have never been involved in a small prayer group or community, although 30 percent say they would like to.

There are also complaints about the lack of a prayerful atmosphere at Mass, with six in 10 saying that the chatter of others before Mass disturbs their private prayer.

This snapshot of the Catholic population is the result of a census conducted over the weekend of Aug 25-26 in 2007, with a second survey the following weekend for those who missed out on the first one. The census was conducted by the Catholic Research Centre of Singapore and Family Life Society, both headed by Jesuit Father Charles Sim. It was funded by the Lien Foundation.

Sociology professor Stella Quah spearheaded the development of the questionnaire which began in the second half of 2005. She led a team which analyzed the findings and wrote the census report. She is now working on individual reports for each of the 30 parishes that took part in the survey. The main census findings were presented at the priests’ Annual Presbyterium in March.

In all, 94,447 people completed the survey. This is a significant proportion of the total Catholic population, which was estimated at 170,000 in 2006 in the official directory of the archdiocese. The Singapore Census conducted by the government in 2000 had put the number of Catholics at about 120,000.

Of the nearly 95,000 Catholics surveyed, 80.5 percent said they attend Mass every weekend.

Most Catholics feel a sense of belonging to their parish church, with 76 percent agreeing that there is one church in Singapore that they feel is their parish church. Over eight in 10 express a wish to know their parishioners better. But they feel that the church has to play a role to foster such relationships, with 55.5 percent saying that "parishioners cannot get to know each other better unless the church helps them".

Despite their desire to know fellow Catholics better, not many Catholics are engaged in a church activity. Nearly half – 47.8 percent – do not spend any time on church activities beyond attendance at Mass. Another 15.7 percent spend less than an hour a month. Only a small fraction – 12.9 percent – spend more than four hours a month in church activities or ministries.

On the bright side, teenagers are the most engaged in church. Those aged 12 to 19 have the most regular church attendance, show the greatest attachment to their respective parish churches, take part in more church activities than adults, and feel more connected during weekend Masses.

Prof Quah attributes this to the catechism programme: "It is likely that many years of Catechism in Catholic Churches can claim credit for this. It is true that youngsters are more gregarious and more open to activities in church for social reasons."

While at Mass, many Catholics like to have time for quiet prayer, with 52.5 percent saying they prefer to pray and meditate by themselves when attending Mass. About six in 10 say that other people’s chatter before Mass disturbs their private prayer.

In her report, Prof Quah highlights the need to balance the individual’s desire for quiet meditation with the church’s wish to foster collective prayer and a sense of congregation during Mass. One way to do this, she suggests, is to set aside time during Mass for quiet meditation and prayer. Churches can create meeting places outside the church, such as at a lobby or entrance hall, for social interaction, to discourage parishioners from disturbing others’ prayer in the main church.

Despite their preference for prayer in church, in fact most Catholic families do not pray together as a family. Two in three say they seldom or never pray together as a family.

Still, the Catholic family remains strong. Six in 10 Catholics come from families where all members are Catholic. Of those who are married, a high proportion – 83.5 percent – are married to fellow Catholics.

Not surprisingly, most Catholics attend weekend Mass with family, with 64.6 percent saying they attend weekend Mass with one or more family members. Those who go to church as a family are most likely to attend regularly: 86 percent of those who go to church as a family, say they go to Mass every weekend, suggesting that Catholic families support each other in church attendance.

While this is encouraging, the flip side is the possible alienation of those who are not from Catholic families, or those who are single, divorced, widowed or estranged from family. One in five Catholics attend Mass alone. This proportion increases to nearly one-third (29 percent) among older parishioners.

Language is also an issue. One in five parishioners do not speak English, and speak only one Asian language at home, suggesting the need for more services and ministries to cater to the non-English speaking.

The census also highlights the impact of globalization on the Catholic community, with a large minority of foreigners captured in the census. About 26 percent of those surveyed classified themselves as "others" when asked about race. Of this, 17.8 percent are Filipinos, about five percent are Eurasians, and one percent are Caucasians. The largest group of foreign parishioners are from the Philippines (16.6 percent), Malaysia (three percent), and India, Pakistan and Bangladesh combined (2.6 percent). The findings again throw up a possible gap in services to this group of foreign parishioners.

The census is significant in providing the first comprehensive and accurate picture of the Catholic community in Singapore.

The findings highlight areas of concern, such as the need to engage more Catholics beyond Mass, the need to grow small Christian communities, the need to improve the prayerful atmosphere at Mass, and the need to strengthen the prayer lives of families.

At the same time, emerging trends – such as more older parishioners attending Mass alone, and the growing numbers of foreigners – should alert the church to cater better to these groups, whose numbers will surely grow. n

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