PENANG, MALAYSIA – Simply attending Mass every Sunday is not sufficient to strengthen one’s faith, says Bishop Antony Selvanayagam of Penang. What is additionally required is a concern for the istic development of others.

The Malaysian bishop, who on Oct 24 turned 75, the age when bishops are obliged to request for retirement, has worked for human development in his years heading the diocese. He set up the Penang Office for Human Development and the Parish Human Development Committees, as well as strengthened Basic Ecclesial Communities.

In this interview with, he talks about his work in these areas as well as the role that Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) play in the religious, social and political lives of Catholics. What have been the highlights of your years as bishop?
Bishop Antony Selvanayagam: One important highlight is building communities – setting up BECs (Basic Ecclesial Communities) in all parishes. The Church is not able to meet challenges if it continues to work only at the parish level, so now people are turning to BECs as the lifeline of the Church.

Catholics must begin to realise that going to church every Sunday alone cannot make us strong in our faith, but caring for people and loving one another keeps us alive. My predecessor Archbishop Soter Fernandez had already started BECs. I just continued his good work.

Another important highlight was the setting up of the diocesan-level Penang Office for Human Development (POHD) and the parish-level Parish Human Development Committees (PHDC).
Realising that human development is very important and also a major thrust of the [peninsular-Malaysia bishops], I was all for starting the POHD in 2000. Now, after 11 years, the POHD has moved forward tremendously with various ministries like The Lighthouse [a feeding centre for the homeless], migrant ministry and “Bright Sparks” for the development of the whole child.

From POHD at the diocesan level, we encouraged action on human development at the parish level. Thus, the PHDC was started, and now almost all the parishes in the diocese have PHDC. This is in line with the Church’s call that everyone in the parishes should be responsible for seeing to the wholesome development of others.

Another highlight was in 1985 when I became the first president of the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM), a body to bring together all Christians for a united voice. CFM is also a member in the Malaysian Consultative Council of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Sikhism and Taoism. It’s a pity though that Muslims are not included in this council. We are also proud that our Church does not take a racial stand. We have done away with “Chinese Church”, “Tamil Church” etc., though we recognise there are different language groups and support them. But at the same time we encourage them to come together for a common function or event. What have been the major challenges you faced?

To get people to attend formation programmes is a challenge. Not many people see the need for formation. They are not fully aware of their roles as Catholics. A Catholic has to receive formation continually to keep the Church alive and informed on questions on the faith.
Another challenge is the shortage of priests. Despite this, the priests have stretched themselves tremendously to serve the people. Fortunately laypeople support the priests and are now coming forward to help in parish life. You see them in the various committees such as those for liturgy, catechetics, etc. Then there is the misconception among many people that being politically involved only means becoming politicians or being involved in political parties.

In fact, being politically involved means speaking up for our rights. We hear people complaining about injustice, unfairness, racism and so on but they don’t act. They expect the Church leaders to speak up and they don’t do anything. That’s not right at all. They should be encouraged to be vocal, to express their views, to fight for their rights. Church leaders play a part but all Catholics should be more active in expressing their rights.

Hearing the Word of God in church should help us carry out our political responsibilities. To be politically sensitive to what’s happening around us is part of our responsibilities as Church. We must educate the people on this important area, but since it is also a delicate area, we must be prudent in going about it. What should the diocese continue to focus on? My wish is that community building will continue to flourish through BECs, in which people of all religions can see the way Christians live. BECs can also help build political awareness. The BEC is more than an avenue for devotional practice. It encompasses the life of the people.

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