SINGAPORE – "It’s not that easy," Archbishop Nicholas Chia said a number of times to an audience of about 30 young adults. The archbishop’s response was understandable given that many of the questions, suggestions and requests from the participants have no clear "yes" or "no" answer.

Archbishop Chia was engaged in a two-hour dialogue session titled "Face To Face With The Archbishop" held on Apr 24. It is the second in an ongoing series of dialogue sessions organized by CANA – The Catholic Centre.

The first session between Archbishop Chia and 40 Catholics from the diocese took place at CANA last November. Organizers kept the number small in order to make the session more personal.

"These sessions are held for him to be in touch with his people, and for his people to meet him in a nice, informal setting," explained Janet Lim, a full-time CANA volunteer. "We invited the youths and young adults because we kept hearing about them, but not from them."

Among the issues raised by participants prior to the session, chief among these focused on the lack of official Catholic response to the number of abortions conducted in Singapore, the state of the liturgy in parishes here, and the employment of more full-time workers in the diocese with market-rate salaries.




During the session itself however, the issue of employment of more lay workers, particularly full-time counsellors, dominated.

Adrian Lim, a counselling psychologist first raised the matter on the lack of Catholic counselling centres in Singapore.

"There are 170,000 Catholics in Singapore, based on the official Singapore statistics, which amounts to about 30,000 families in Singapore. But there is only one Catholic Family Service Centre (Marine Parade Family Service Centre) out of the 37 Family Service Centres," he claimed.

(A check by CatholicNews reveals that there are five centres in Singapore which offer counselling services by Catholics. These are Marine Parade Family Service Centre, Family Life Society, Beyond Social Services, and two branches of Morning Star Community Services.)

"Catholic couples are seeking help from non-Catholic/Christian counsellors who guide them to work out solutions that may not be in line with our Catholic teachings and values, such as divorce, abortion, and contraception," continued Mr Lim. He suggested that every parish should be transformed into a Family Service Centre with full-time counsellors employed.

Mr Lim also highlighted the lack of avenues for Catholics who are social workers, trained counsellors and professional psychologists to work in the diocese, citing examples of Catholics having to find employment in welfare organizations run by non-Catholic Christians such as the Methodist and Anglican dioceses, and by other religious organizations such as the Buddhist societies.

He challenged the Catholic archdiocese to change its mindset and start employing Catholic lay workers at market-rate salaries, rather than to rely too much on volunteers, dedicated as they may be.

"There are 60 lay counselling volunteers who have undergone five months’ basic lay counselling training, with 100 new students for this year," said Archbishop Chia. These counsellors are sent to 12 parishes in Singapore where counselling sessions are available free of charge to all.

In addition, there are four full-time therapists working in Family Life Society who are "adequately paid", revealed Archbishop Chia.

(CatholicNews later conducted its own check and learnt that when a person calls Family Life Society for counselling, an appointment can be made within a day or two on average. This confirmed that lay people were seeking counselling from non-Catholic counsellors not for the lack of Catholic counsellors working in the diocese.)

During the session, Archbishop Chia had offered a possible explanation. When it came to those who are seeking help, "it is a matter of faith", he said. "If you have the faith, you will want to seek help from the church. But if not, you will seek help elsewhere."

"In general, if they are Catholics, they should know that they can approach the priests for help," added Archbishop Chia.

According to Family Life Society’s Marketing Executive Nick Chui, the services of the volunteer counsellors in the 12 parishes are under-utilized, but not for the lack of publicity.

"Banners have been put up in every of the 12 parishes with lay counsellors. Each of the 30 churches in Singapore has received two or three posters that have been put up, and the services are frequently publicized in church bulletins, and on our website," he told CatholicNews.

When asked about the apparent lack of marketing of counselling services, Mr Chui offered this explanation: "People who are not in need of counselling will not notice the availability of counselling services, until they realize their need and would suddenly be more observant."




Lawrence Nonis, a parishioner from Church of the Holy Trinity, the archdiocese’s largest parish, pointed out that without sufficient full-time workers in the diocese, parishes have to rely largely on singles and those without families to care for, due to the lack of time and energy to volunteer in church after work and on weekends.

Archbishop Chia acknowledged that while there were a few parishes with full-time workers, the majority of parishes rely on volunteers. He said that this was a matter that needed to be looked into further. He added that each parish has a Parish Pastoral Council that needs to look at the good of the parish, decide if there is a need to employ staff, and determine their job scopes.

On higher salaries for church workers, Archbishop Chia said that it is more important to find people who are truly dedicated to the cause, than to find people who want to work in the church for the money.

John Sim, from the parish of the Holy Spirit, highlighted the importance of having "one or two permstaff" working in the area of liturgy and catechetics in every parish. They should be given proper formation and training.

This will ensure that what is carried out is in line with the church’s documents, so that "they do what ought to be done, not what they think should be done" as in the case of volunteer catechists and liturgists who have not received proper formation, he explained.

Archbishop Chia’s response was that volunteer catechists are required to undergo formation by the Catechetical Commission, and that it was the role of the parish priest (as Teacher of the Word) to ensure that what is being taught in catechism is in line with the teachings of the church. It is also his role (as Minister of the Sacraments) to ensure that proper liturgy is carried out in his parish.




Other suggestions raised by participants included:

Raising the age of receiving the Sacrament of Confirmation from 15 years to 18 years;

Guiding young adults in their discernment of vocation (single, married, or religious) thereby helping them to find their vocation in life and in the church;

Increasing the number of venues for youth group retreats to be held;

Providing more avenues and opportunities for young adults to be involved in the church.

Mr Sim also raised the issue of the ambiguity of abstinence of meat on Fridays. He claimed that several priests in the diocese had spoken over the pulpit that Archbishop Chia has abolished the need for abstinence of meat on Fridays. He asked that the archbishop clarify this matter.

Archbishop Chia explained that Friday is a day of penance. This penance usually takes the form of abstinence of meat. But where this is not appropriate, such as when it inconveniences non-Catholic members of the family, some other form of penance may be substituted for it.

Archbishop Chia placed greater emphasis on the spirit of the law rather than on the letter of the law, giving the example that a person who abstains from meat on Friday but chooses to dine at a seafood restaurant instead is missing the point of the practice, which is about penance.

In his closing address, Archbishop Chia thanked the participants for their contribution and said that while some issues needed to be looked into further, "some have no immediate solutions". -By Daniel Tay

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