Dr Gabriel Oon was a member of the team from the Order of Malta who went to the Holy Land on a pilgrimage recently. They were also there to witness the consecration of the mosaic iconography of Our Lady at the Basilica of the Annunciation at Nazareth and to bring cheer and donations to the orphans at the Holy Family Hospital and Orphanage in Bethlehem. This is his story.

OUR 14-DAY pilgrimage was truly a spirit-filled time for us as we walked in the land where Jesus lived, performed his miracles, taught us to love one another (Jn 13:34) and suffered his passion.

Our team consisted of Knights J. Y. Pillay, Dr Andrew Kwok, my wife Susie, and our two friends Maria and Tony Ho.

On Dec 16, we visited the most likely site of Jesus' baptism at Wadi Cherasar, by the Jordan River, which was about an hour's drive from Amman (Lk 3:21). This was where Joshua had probably crossed with the twelve tribes of Israel to take Jericho and the Promised Land of Canaan (Jos 3:1-18).

After security clearance, we entered the grounds of the Greek Orthodox Church of St. John. There was an ancient baptismal font by the side of the River Jordan, with engravings dating back to the Byzantine period of 380 A.D. (Mt 2:13-17).

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Later that afternoon, in cold and windy conditions, we climbed Mount Mecharius in Jordan, to visit what is left of the Palace of Herod Antipas, where our patron saint, John the Baptist, lost his head at Salome's request (Mk 6:14-29). The palace, on a ground area of about 100 x 300 meters was a one- torey building with mosaic tiles, Corinthian columns, stone water jars (which brought water up from artisan wells below), a wine cellar but no underground prison.

After reading the gospel of John's beheading (Mt 14:1-12), we reckoned that John the Baptist was probably incarcerated in one of these caves at the slope of the mountain, beheaded in his cave  and his head was brought to the Palace on a platter (Mt 14:1-12).

At the Qumran bookshelf next to the hills where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, we found the complete works of the Jewish Antiquities written by the authoritative Roman Jew, Flavius Josephus (born 37 A.D.). It recorded the destruction of  Herod's Palace during the Jewish Revolt in 75 A.D. by the Roman Emperor Titus, son of Vespasian, who had adopted Josephus as his son. Josephus recorded the persons of John the Baptist, and Jesus the Christ, whom he regarded as the Messiah, who was crucified in 30 A.D., reappeared on the third day, to the joy of local Christian followers then.

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We crossed the Sheik Hussein Bridge and entered into the fertile valleys and hills of Tiberius and the beautiful tranquil Sea of Galilee. As we sat on the multitudes on Mount Beatitude (Mk 3:7-13) we read Jesus' teachings on true happiness (Mt 5:1-12). At the newly excavated site of Bethsaida, which is several  miles inland now, we saw the ruins of the probable fishermen's homes of Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, Judas, John and James, the sons of Zebedee.

Here Jesus called Levi (Lk 5:27-33) and taught the Parable of the Sower (Mt 13). Here, Jesus also condemned the unbelieving towns of Chorazin and Bethsaida (Lk 10:13-20). At the Israelian Archaeological Museum, we later found the carved golden bull worshipped by the pagan people of Bethsaida.

On Dec 19, we left for Nazareth, which is an hour's drive from Mount Beatitude, for our special private Mass in the Grotto of the Annunciation. This Grotto marked the site where the angel Gabriel appeared to the Virgin Mary (Lk 1:26-38). The iconography of Our Lady was consecrated after the Mass. Later in the day, we visited a new excavation site near Nazareth and a mile away at Zippori.

Here, it is believed that Joseph and Jesus found work by building the Roman buildings and the aqueducts. There are ancient Roman roads dating back to the first century. Nearby was an ancient synagogue and we wondered if Jesus preached there. (Lk 4:42-46).

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At the Wedding Church of Cana (Jn 2:1-12), we renewed our marriage vows presided over by a parish priest. We visited the palace, stables and synagogue of King Solomon (1 Kgs 4:1-33) at Megiddo (Hebrew term for Armageddon in Rv 16:16) and down by the shores of the Dead Sea, saw some acacia trees from which the Ark of the Covenant was made.

Further down at the copper mines of Timna, we saw how the Egyptian Pharaohs, Rameses I and II and later King Solomon, obtained copper for the bronze metals (1 Kgs 7:40-45). Along the shores of the Dead Sea and at Lot (Gn 19:23-29), we found large salt crystals, some the size of boulders. There we read about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and how Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt, when she disobeyed and turned back.

The visit to the Holy Family Maternity and Children's Hospital and the Orphanage in Bethlehem (run by the Order of Malta) was an hour's journey through high security. Bethlehem is now a walled city. A very high wall separating Bethlehem from Jerusalem meandered through homes and around the whole town of Bethlehem. Even Rachel's tomb (Gn 35:16-21) is walled off completely in a circle.This made us reflect on what Our Lord Jesus had said 2000 years ago, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem, if only you knew the day that God had come to save you: (Lk 13:34-35). "Peace is what I give you!"

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In the Crusader Basilica of the Nativity (where Jesus was born) we studied and treasured the experience of seeing the ancient tapestry depicting three wise men from the East paying homage to the newborn Jesus. One of the three wise men was dressed as an Assyrian King and another was a dark skinned person. When the invading  Persians in the Middle Ages saw this painting and recognised their own king, they spared the church from destruction.

Sadly at the bottom of another cave, was the cave of the Holy Innocents (Mt 2:1-11) where Herod the Great, on hearing the birth of a new king, killed children under two years old in Bethlehem (Mt 2:16-18)

We stayed for four nights at the Pontifical Institute of Notre Dame where Christmas Mass was celebrated for pilgrims and the Jerusalem Catholics. Holy Hour was spent at Gethsemane, the night before our departure. As I bent over the rock where Jesus prayed, I poured out my sorrows to Jesus and like Jesus wept… "If this cup of sorrow can pass me  by….. yet not my will, but yours". (Mt 26:39-45).

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The next morning, we did the Stations of the Cross and spent time for reflection at the Church of Flagellation and at the place where Jesus was stripped of his garments and whipped, and we saw the carvings of the Roman soldiers as they played dice for his clothes (Jn 19:23-24). At the 7.15am private English Mass inside the Tomb of Jesus in the Holy Sepulcher church, Father Angelo said, "Your lives will be transformed during this pilgrimage. It will not be the same again."

Like Mary, his mother, we stood at the spot below the Crucified Christ at Calvary and looked at Our Lord on the Cross, and at the spot where Mary Magdalene saw the Risen Christ (Jn 20:11-18).

As our plane left the Holy Land, I reflected on these treasured memories of our pilgrimage. "If only you knew the day when God came to save you… Peace is what I give you!"

The Singapore team from the Order of Malta poses for a photo with the custodian of the Basilica of the Annunciation. Directly above them is the iconography of Our Lady with her Singapore children.

The greatest obstacle to good spousal relationship is a spouse who is preoccupied with self, says Father Henry Siew in this article, the second part of a series on spousal relationship.

WHEN SOMEONE IS married, he is supposed to "live happily ever after" with his spouse. But this is often not the case.

Take May, for example. May was single when she hastily agreed to be match-made by her friend when she (May) suddenly realised that time had caught up with her. May was married within three months of meeting her match. Consciously she judged her partner to be handsome, well-educated, and had a stable job and a good income. Subconsciously she just wanted to leave spinsterhood to join her circle of friends who seemed to be happily married.

Then there was Ben. Ben was infatuated with his eye-catching girlfriend Joan, and boasted to every one of his friends about his good luck at being able to win the heart of such a beauty. Ben's infatuation made him overlook all of Joan's personal shortcomings, and he gleefully married her (in spite of his mother's objection).

The consequence for May and Ben for the decisions that they made was that soon after marriage they realised that they could not live pleasantly with their spouses, bickering with them over the smallest matters. May is now contemplating divorce. Ben has turned to alcohol to distract himself from his disillusion with his marriage and dull the emotional pain  although he is still proud that his wife is one of the most beautiful women in the world.

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Stumbling blocks

What is the greatest stumbling block towards marital bliss for May, Ben, Joan and people like them? They themselves are the stumbling blocks! Yet often they are totally unaware of it and because this ignorance acts as a barrier to genuine inter-personal interaction, they are not able to establish meaningful relationships.

The reason is simple: When people are preoccupied with self-centred desires - be it security, financial stability or something else - they treat human relationships as a means to attain them; other people are treated as something to be used. They do so consciously or subconsciously, during courtship and after marriage.

The only difference in the before marriage and after marriage scenario is that before marriage their selfishness is often camouflaged by some superficial acts of considerateness which are part of their scheme to "conquer" the pursued.

Self-centred people look for comfort, protection, support, care, money, happiness, sex, pride, honour, riches, solutions, agreement, consolation from their partners. Ironically, the more one wants to gain satisfaction from a partner, the less likely one will be truly satisfied. Once a need is satisfied, another need soon surfaces; once a problem is solved, another arises. As such the needs never get fully satisfied, the hunger is never satiated, the wounds never heal, the problems never end.

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People whose goals are the fulfilment of personal needs will endlessly seek for someone who can satisfy these needs, but end up not finding a single person who can fully satisfy him. Someone who places the focus in a relationship on his own needs fulfilment is egoistic but he is often unaware of it.

He behaves pathetically, giving the impression that he is weak, helpless, hurt, exploited or poor, so that other people should pity him, take care of him, be concerned about him, and love him. If others do not cater to his expectations, he laments that he is "a nobody" or accuses others of being "unsympathetic".

If this happens in a marriage, where the blame is directed against his spouse, it will result in frequent skirmishes, and he will putting his marriage at risk. If one starts out with self-centred interests in human relationships, one would not be able to give oneself to another unconditionally, nor to live for others, nor to partake fully in a shared life.

His motive in establishing a relationship is self-gratification. But because there is no end to the satisfaction he seeks, he will never gain genuine fulfilment. If both parties enter into marriage with such dysfunctional attitudes, the outcome will be quite disastrous.

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Only when a person learns to go beyond himself to love another like the way he loves his own body (Eph 5:28), then he is able to truly love and begin to build authentic relationship with his spouse. He can only find true fulfilment in giving and sharing of oneself, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her (Eph 5:25).

Of course his wife must reciprocate that love if the relationship is to advance healthily. But at least if one party starts to go beyond himself, he stands a good chance in making a difference to his family life.

Let anyone who wants to change his attitude for the better towards his spouse say the following prayer: "Lord God, I trust that your love is everlasting. I want to open my heart to receive and experience your love. Please embrace me, and let me know that your love is unconditional. Fulfill and satisfy me with the abundance of this love. Let me realise that I am precious, lovable, and loved in your sight. Release my bondage of self-preoccupation and free my heart, so that I may love genuinely and give of myself joyously, and not to look for something in return. Grant me wisdom and strength to meet my partner's needs rather than mine. Remove the fear and mistrust in my heart, so that I may trust in your grace and strength, and live to enjoy the goodness and love which you desire for my spousal relationship. Amen."

Father Henry Siew, parish priest of St. Anne's Church, is a trained professional social worker. He is the spiritual director to Mandarin Marriage Encounter Weekend, and to Morning Star Community Services.

By Joyce Gan 

The Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ is synonymous with beautiful church music. Their singing adds to the sublimity of Sunday Mass at the cathedral. 

EVERY SUNDAY MORNING the choir processes in stately fashion into the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd for the 10am Mass. They bear the standard, which was blessed in Rome by Pope John Paul II. They are the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ. Many Singaporeans would call them the Peter Low Choir after the man who has been associated with them as choir master since 1971.

The choir was at the Risen Christ parish - hence its name - from 1970 until its installation at the cathedral in April 2002 at the request of former Cathedral Rector, Msgr Eugene Vaz. "After 32 years at one place it's time to move on especially since Risen Christ had other choirs in place," Mr Low remarked.

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Almost all the choir members moved with the choir. They are a dedicated group and Mr Low holds them in high esteem while setting high standards for them. "In any thing that you do, you have got to be dedicated," he shared. "That's the one thing that makes the difference." For example, choir members do not go on holiday during Christmas and Easter as their singing is "a gift to the worshipping community and to the Christ child."  

Every Sunday, members show up unfailingly and punctually at 9am to practise before Mass. They also practise at Mr Low's house once a month for three hours. Group cohesion may be another reason for the choir's excellent quality. There are whole families who sing together in the choir. Recently, two members, Rebecca Ang and Karen Mong, chose to come back to sing after one month of maternity leave although they were allowed to go on a two-year maternity leave from the choir.

New members are accepted into the choir on a trial basis and they will only be confirmed if they have the right attitude, an attribute which Mr Low considers very important. "I believe a choir should be able to sing competently… not just to sing hymns but to lead the congregation. Our job is to sing parts of the Liturgy that will bring beauty to the liturgy and to enhance the sense of worship," Mr Low said.

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As the mother church in Singapore, the cathedral deserves a proper choir to provide a musical standard which would be expected of a cathedral, Mr Low explained. Among the contribution of the choir to making the liturgy beautiful and reverential is the use of Gregorian chants and Latin.  

Mr Low learnt Gregorian chant and Latin in his younger days. He was Bishop Michael Olcomendy's personal altar boy at daily Mass from the age of 10 to 18. Back then, Masses were celebrated in Latin. "We were singing in a language we did not speak but that doesn't mean we didn't understand it (the worship)," he said and likened the practice to that of Buddhists who chant in Sanskrit and Muslims in Arabic.

"I'm in favour of selective use of Latin as it's strongly endorsed by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI as the language of the Roman Catholic Church. It's a connection not only between nations but with our  past." He feels that singing the "Our Father" and the "Creed" in Latin adds a sense of the sublime.  Singing in Latin will link us across frontiers as it is "international practice in cathedrals all over the world," he added.

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A lifetime's contribution

Peter Low has spent much of his life making beautiful music for the church. He conducted his first youth choir in 1965 at the Church of St. Michael before conducting his full choir in 1971 at the Church of the Risen Christ. What keeps him going?

"The word is grace," he asserted. He believes that everyone is given gifts and must use these gifts to serve the Lord. "Some people are born to do social work, some to teach, some to visit the sick. Music is a gift of God to me and I must give it back".  

And he has, not just to the church but to Singapore as well, which is in keeping with the Cathedral Choir of the Risen Christ's motto Pro-Pontifice et Patria which means "For Pope and Country". The choir has often performed to raise funds for worthy causes such as schools, homes for the aged, hospitals and international relief.

 At home, the choir performed at significant occasions such as the opening of Changi Prison War Memorial and Singapore's 25th National Day celebrations. The choir has also made its mark internationally. It sang in Bethlehem at the invitation of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism in 1995, and again in Israel at the "Concert for Peace" in 1999. It has played its part to promote Singapore tourism by performing in international events held by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board and Singapore Airlines.

These contributions to promote international relations and to the church earned Mr Low a knighthood from the Vatican in March 2003.

Right, Chinese Silk Dance - Choir and dancers performing the Chinese Carol at "The Promised One", the choir's first ever Christmas concert that was held on Dec 18, 2005.

By Joyce Gan

Every Wednesday evening about 200 parishioners of Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour and other nearby parishes attend Father Gregory van Giang's Bible class. Why?

"PEOPLE NOW ARE hungry for the Word of God." This was the thought that led Father Gregory van Giang to start a Bible class at the beginning of 2005 at the Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Succour (OLPS), where he is parish priest.

Father Gregory's Bible class started with 18 "students" but has since grown to almost 200, some of whom come from the neighbouring East District parishes.

Father Gregory taught the original group of 18 the Letters of Paul and the Acts of the Apostles which led to their being inspired to make a pilgrimage to Turkey to experience the routes the apostles had taken. This experience convinced them that the Bible lessons should continue after their return. Father Gregory agreed and he  "officially" started the Bible classthat the students attend every Wednesday evening.

There is no fancy name to it - it's simply known as Bible Study. Starting with the Book of Genesis, Father Gregory goes through every verse in the Bible with the students. Where they used to be able to complete only one chapter each week, the class is now able to study up to three chapters a week.

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This is Father Gregory's fourth year at OLPS and he intends to cover as much of the Bible as possible. "As long as I'm here, I'll continue [with it]", he said. When more people started to turn up for the weekly sessions, Father Gregory decided that it was a better idea to open the class up for everyone who is interested. After all, it takes the same amount of work and it benefits more. He shifted the class to the main church hall where more people can be accommodated.

THE SESSIONS BEGIN at 8pm sharp on Wednesdays. During a session attended by the writer of this article, Father Gregory greets those present warmly in his jovial manner. He addresses those present by their names. In return, many respond enthusiastically to the questions he poses.

The sessions are interjected with anecdotes, jokes and personal sharings and reflections. It seems that people respond so positively to Father Gregory's Bible Study because they see his dedication, and like him for his personality and ability to relate to them even as he sometimes struggles with the English language. Because of this, those attending the class make the effort to prepare for each Wednesday session.

"I'm beginning to reflect deeper in the Word," commented Ms Brenda, a parishioner at OLPS who has been going to the class. "Normally we just read [the Bible] literally but not spiritually."

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THOSE HUNGRY FOR the Word of God but find the OLPS class inconvenient or unsuitable may also go to the Singapore Pastoral Institute (SPI) which organises 30 or more Bible courses a year by Bible scholars Msgr Eugene Vaz and Father Ambrose Vaz, and other priests and religious sisters. Each of these courses is attended by 20 to 100 people.

Some of these courses are held at parishes while most are conducted at the Catholic Archdiocesan Education Centre at 2, Highland Road. For more information on the SPI courses visit www.catholic.org.sg/spi

Right, Father Gregory in an animated discussion during one of his Bible Study sessions.


By Joyce Gan 

SINGAPORE - James Wong, 58, has resigned as Executive Director of Family Life Society (FLS) to dedicate himself full-time to his final year of the Masters in Social Science (Counselling) offered by Edith Cowan University of Western Australia in Singapore. The course will train him "to relate and to empathise with people".

Mr Wong has been with the FLS for the last four and a half years during which he raised its profile and led the different ministries managed by the society to collaborate better, and thus led to the group being able to render better assistance to those it serves. Aside from getting his Masters, he hopes to "write an autobiography for his grandchildren" and improve on his fitness level in the coming year.

Although some of his friends are baffled by his decision to leave his job, Mr Wong's family, is not. He believes that God has given him many spiritual gifts and that his qualifications, skills and experience should be used to help others. After completing the Masters "I'll like to go back to the Help profession," he said.