The Recent 2010 Census of the Singaporean Population shows Catholics forming 7.1% of the population, up from 4.6% in 2000. While that is surely something for our community to rejoice, what is perhaps more important is the “inner life” of Catholics. Nick Chui was privileged to interview three such families. In their own way, they put “flesh” on the phrase “Singaporean Catholic family.” Are they typically Singaporean Catholic? We let the reader be the judge. But if St Therese of Lisieux is right, then there are surely many different types of flowers in God’s garden and all in their own way bring delight and glory to him.
Working dad, stay-at-home mum and three young children
“Sure, why don’t you drop in for dinner,” was Anthony’s cheery reply when I asked if I could interview him for this article. Home for him is a HDB flat in the Serangoon area where he lives with his wife, Patricia, and their three young children: Joseph, 10, Francis, 8, and Dawn, 5. Anthony admits that his wife, his work as a teacher in a government school, and his three children, keep him “grounded”.
“The Catholic faith is the foundation on which we live our daily lives. Nothing makes sense without Faith. It grounds and guides us,” Patricia shared when I asked what Faith meant to her and Anthony.
Having met as members of the NUS Catholic Students Society back in the early 1990s, both Anthony and Patricia were eager to transmit their faith to their children.
But as they are the first to admit, it is not easy. Anthony was slightly sheepish when I first asked him if he would like to be featured. “The children are still pretty young. We are a ‘work-in-progress’. You should come back again in 20 years time when they are older.”
When asked about the challenges they faced as a couple, Anthony and Patricia said that the surrounding culture and environment were not always the most conducive. Finding time to pray was also challenging.
“Sometimes I wish that we could pray together more as a family. We say the rosary once a month. We always say grace before meals. But I think that we should really spend more time together reflecting on the scriptures, especially on Sundays,” said Anthony.
“I am not against my children playing computer games (which they love to do) or reading popular books like the Mr Midnight or Captain Underpants series for leisure. I don’t think it is healthy at all to encase the children in a protective bubble. Nevertheless, if children are only exposed to secular entertainment, I think we have a problem.”
Anthony and Patricia try to invest in books and videos with spiritual and/or positive moral themes which may not necessarily be explicitly Catholic but which broaden the cultural horizons of their children such as Veggie Tales and even J.R.R Tolkien’s Lord of The Rings series. They are especially careful with the Internet and often preview YouTube videos or Google searches before their children see them.
Anthony also ensures that the rhythm of the Church’s liturgical calendar is felt at home.
“We have a basic Nativity set. So for Advent 2010 we made the decision to splurge by ordering some shepherds online. The children got to choose which shepherd figurines they preferred. I also tried to explain to them the connection between the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene.”
“Our children have many questions about the Faith. We may not always have all the answers but we try to teach with love and commitment,” says Patricia. “I guess that’s the best we can do. Our kids are watching us all the time. They can detect phoniness and inconsistencies in our lifestyles and what we profess to be important.”
A Family of converts
It was in the light of this “phony detector” among children that David and Margaret Teo, 60 and 57, respectively, received what they described as their “best Christmas present” from their then 22 year-old son, James. A Christmas card with the following note, “Thank you Mum and Dad for bringing me into the Catholic Church and raising me as a Catholic. I am deeply happy.”
Indeed, for David and Margaret, the Catholic Church wasn’t always their home. Devout Protestants since their university days, they had resolved with the help of God’s grace, that their marriage and family life will be guided strictly by the precepts found in Holy Scripture. That they believe is the source of true unity among Christians.
Yet, a bitter dispute within their Protestant denomination over whether the charismatic gifts within the Christian community continued into contemporary times shook the foundations of their faith.
“The Church was bitterly divided,” recalled David. “Both sides were preparing position papers and quoting scripture and declaring that they were for Pastor so-and-so who agreed with them. At that time, I remembered recalling a verse from Scripture: ‘I am for Paul, I am for Apollo (1 Cor 3:4)’. I wondered; who was for Christ?”
Their search for a Church which could speak and interpret scripture authoritatively led to their reception (or reversion, since David was raised a Catholic) to the Catholic Church in the early 1990s.
Since then, they have not looked back. As a family they slowly discovered the riches of Catholic devotional and intellectual life. As a couple they studied the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the scripture and apologetics, so that they were able to answer questions that a growing James would inevitably have. Two things which stand out in their devotional life are their practice of frequent confession together as a family as well as dressing properly for Sunday Mass, with an insistence on a collared t-shirt for both David and James.
Shared Margaret, “Frequent confession as a family shows that none of us is perfect and all of us need the Lord’s help in becoming better people. I guess it helped James to see that their parents, too, are subject to the laws of God. As for dressing properly for Mass, we as parents should set an example to show that the Mass is not something casual but the worship of the Triune God.”
“Every parent wants to leave their children a legacy. For us, the most important legacy which we can leave to our child is the Catholic faith. Everything else is only of relative worth when compared to this,” chimed David.
James, now an undergraduate at a local university, was quick to agree. “I know where I am going as a Catholic and have answers to the meaning of life. It is a joy to share this with others.”
A family with a special child
That the Catholic faith is truly a pearl of great price struck home in a very palpable manner in the light of my meeting with Peter and Joan Chia, aged 73 and 67, respectively, and their intellectually-disabled son, Thomas, aged 34.
I was invited to their simple but neat three-room flat in Clementi on a weekday afternoon and deeply appreciated their kind hospitality. Their son, Thomas, was not around during my first visit. They had sent him to a day activities center for the intellectually-disabled.
“He learns simple things at the center like fitting in jigsaw puzzles and differentiating colors. At home, we teach him the basics of the Catholic faith. He knows how to make the sign of the Cross and knows how to call the name of Jesus. At Mass, he follows us as we stand, sit and kneel.”
Peter and Joan were quick to dispel any notion that they are some kind of a husband and wife team of Catholic super-heroes.
“We did not know that Thomas had Down’s Syndrome. We only discovered it after he was born,” shared Peter in a quiet and matter-of-fact voice.
The humility of Peter and Joan struck me. Here was a couple who did not pretend that it would be easy to accept the news had they discovered via pre-natal diagnosis that Thomas, their son, was born with Down’s syndrome. Yet God has in his providence given them Thomas to be their son. They were to take care of him as best as they could.
Joan and Peter recalled a number of instances when Thomas was growing up which caused them anxiety but also deepened their faith in God’s providence.
“Thomas is a very trusting boy. He will literally follow anybody home if they were to pick him up. He was lost once in Chinatown and we were frantically looking for him and even reported to the police. We feared that he might have followed somebody home. Eventually, we found him close by at the stair-case leading to the entrance of Kreta Ayer Complex, looking at the people there, peaceful, almost contemplative,” shared Joan.
Joan also proceeded to show me a set of surgical screws. “Two operations on his dislocated hip,” explained Peter.
When I visited them again during the Chinese New Year period, Thomas was around. He had a very pleasant disposition and will smile to himself occasionally and would often seem to be deep in thought. He is happy when his hand is stroked and when he is shown signs of affection.
He was never a “noisy baby”, shared Joan. “We did not need a pacifier when he was growing up.”
Yet the reality of age can cause a certain amount of anxiety.
“He used to be able to call us Pa and Ma, but he is unable to do that today. Perhaps he, too, is growing old”, shared Peter.
Peter and Joan are arranging to put some money into a trust fund set up by the government for persons with special needs. “Who knows who might go home to the Lord first Him or us? Our deepest wish is to see him well taken care of should the Lord decide to take us away first.”
In a fast paced consumer driven society like Singapore, where one is constantly assessed and prized for one’s economic worth, the presence of intellectually-disabled persons can sometimes seem like an oddity. Those whose hearts have been hardened will angrily demand to know what economic value these people are worth. Yet for those with eyes to see, their very presence, and the loving concern shown by those who care for them is a challenge, and a necessary one for human beings to see each other not as objects but as persons who flourish in an atmosphere of loving personal concern.
Joan recalled a remark made by a priest who once came to visit them. “The innermost thoughts of Thomas, is known only to God. Who is to say that there does not exist such a profound communion, hidden from the rest of the world? It is also a lesson for others to discover within their own hearts, the call to communion with the Father.”
By: Nick Chui, Family Life Society www.familylife.sg