DECEMBER 9, 2007, Vol 57, No 25

By Joyce Gan

SINGAPORE - Father Matthias Tung, who celebrated his 80th birthday and 50th year of priesthood in February 2006, died on Nov 5. 

He was bedridden in the Intensive Care Unit of Mt Alvernia Hospital, sometimes conscious, other times not, in the two months preceding his death.

In his early years, Father Tung made many contributions to Singapore education. Among them was the purchase of a school building for the primary classes of Holy Innocents' High School in the early 1970s. It was the first purchase of a school building by the church from the government. For these contributions, he received a Public Service Award, the only Catholic priest to have ever been so honoured by the state.

Among his other best-remembered accomplishments were the home missions he organized in 1973, 1975, 1979 and 1996 during which priests visited homes and celebrated Mass with families. The response was overwhelmingly favourable and many "lost sheep" returned to the Lord' fold.

Only God knows just how deeply he has touched the lives of those around him, said Father Paul Tong in his homily at the funeral Mass.

One can glean a little of Father Tung's influence on people and the affection of those touched by him from those who filled up the Church of St. Joseph (Bukit Timah), where he was assistant priest, on the day of his funeral. They came from the parishes of St. Joseph, Sacred Heart, Sts. Peter and Paul, Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary - parishes where Father Tung served.

Some of Father Tung's ashes will be brought back to China, while the rest will be interred at the columbarium at St. Anne's Church.

I HAVE A two-year-old daughter and a five-month-old son. My husband and I, along with our two children have continued to attend Mass every Sunday without fail. It is extremely distressing for us when our children soil themselves. There are no baby changing facilities.

As we attend Mass at Holy Trinity, the church being so packed, we can't even make it past the exit. I nurse my son in the sarong sling and that helps as it provides the necessary cover but not all mothers are able to handle the sling comfortably.

Baby changing/breastfeeding facilities would certainly come in handy and make attending Mass much less stressful.

Audrey Yeo-Chong

Singapore

THE REPORT ON the opening of Father Damien Centre (CN, Oct 28) stated that the cost of the building, including kindergarten classrooms, was $3.25 million. This amount is only the contract sum awarded to the contractor.

Adding in the professional fees paid to the architect and consultants, cost of fitting and furnishing the centre, and upgrading of the kindergarten, and GST brings total cost to about $4.5million.

Joseph Chung

Treasurer of the Father

Damien Centre Building

Fund Committee

Catholic lay group runs Singapore's only shelter for abandoned and homeless people with HIV/AIDS.  

BEING DIAGNOSED WITH HIV/AIDS can sound like the death knell. Many People With HIV/AIDS (PWAs) go through long stages of denial and anger, are fearful, lonely and depressed. Apart from the fear of death, there is the presence of guilt, and fear of rejection and of the realities of coping with the financial, social and practical aspects of the disease.

Reaching out to abandoned, marginalized and destitute PWAs and their families, regardless of race, religion or social standing is an increasingly important and challenging task as the number of people with HIV/AIDS grows.

Catholic AIDS Response Effort (CARE), a lay apostolate ministry, was formed in 1992 for this mission. CARE was recently registered as a charity and is a member organization of the Catholic Social and Community Council (CSCC).

According to Ministry of Health statistics, the number of reported HIV/AIDS cases in Singapore has risen from two cases in 1985 to 3,060 cases at the end of 2006. However, the true prevalence rate is estimated to be two to four times higher.

Many people have the attitude that those who contract HIV/AIDS deserve it; that they must be homosexuals, promiscuous, drug addicts or sex workers. However, HIV does not discriminate. Of the 149 Singaporeans found to be infected between January and June in 2006, there were almost as many professionals (26) as the unemployed (29), twice as many heterosexuals (88) as homosexuals (39), and 88 were married people and 47 singles.

Like the "unclean" leper in the days of old, PWAs experience social stigma. Some have been shunned by friends and even family members. Some of the problems they face are:

- Loneliness and abandonment

- Discrimination at home andwork

- High medical cost

- Lack of family and/or peer support

- Lack of income/financial resources

- Low self-esteem and depression

- Multiple inflammation and diseases due to low resistance

- Little knowledge of God

(continued on page 2)

CARE set up a shelter programme to care for abandoned and homeless PWAs. At this shelter, the only one in Singapore, CARE tries to provide holistic and pastoral care and counselling support.

"The aim of this shelter is to provide temporary accommodation to PWAs while we work with the relevant bodies to rehabilitate and assist them to re-integrate back into society," said Michael A. Png, President of CARE. "This is important as many of those we work with face difficulties in securing jobs because of their condition, and have nowhere to go because of severed or strained ties with family members."

CARE engages the residents in activities such as:

- Pastoral care of PWAs

- Counselling of PWAs and family members

- Regular prayer and fellowship

- Befriending services (celebrate birthdays, accompany the sick on a medical appointment, etc.)

- Job-matching

- Financial assistance

CARE would like to upgrade the quality of care and services given to residents, said Mr Png. CARE plans include a rehabilitation programme consisting of physiotherapy, dietician assessment, counselling, recreational activities and provision for antiretroviral (ART) medicine, which is quite costly.

"We would also like to do more, such as reaching out to those PWAs outside of the shelter, and to provide follow-up support to those who have been discharged from the shelter, and to their families," explained Mr Png, "but we are limited in our abilities by our lack of resources and funds." He hopes that the community, especially the Catholic community, would lend its support.

He believes that more could be done to reach out to the broader community, especially to younger teenagers. Statistics show that there is more risky sexual behaviour in society among teenagers. In 2001, the number of teenagers diagnosed with sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV, was 256. In 2005, it was 638.

Despite the troubling statistics and public perceptions, CARE believes that its role is not to judge but to love. "Whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me." (Matt 25:40)

Father Jean Charbonnier, a Mandarin-proficient French priest who has been entrusted with making China better known to people in France, celebrated his Golden Jubilee on Oct 26 at Church of St. Bernadette, where he served from 1960 to 1970. 

By Joyce Gan

JEAN CHARBONNIER FELT a calling to the priesthood when he was aged 11, entered the Versailles Seminary, joined the Paris Foreign Missions Society (MEP) after completing his first-year Theology, was ordained by the MEP Superior General on Dec 21, 1957 at age 25 and was promptly told that he would be sent to Singapore.

In December 1959 he boarded a ship named "Cambodia" in Marseilles and reached Singapore three weeks later. "On the boat I studied 'Teach Yourself Malay' and I could speak a few words on my arrival," Father Charbonnier recalls.

He was posted for one year at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd Cathedral where he visited many Eurasian families who helped him improve his English. "Archbishop Michael Olcomendy filled me with joy when he asked me to study Chinese." he adds. To do that, he went to Kuala Lumpur to attend a school for civil servants located in the Chinese ancestral temple of the Chen Family (Chenshi Shuyuan) near Petaling Street.

His Mandarin teacher was Yang Demao, a Pekinese employed as an announcer at Radio Malaysia. But his classmates were rather slow in learning the Chinese words, and Father Charbonnier decided to expedite his own learning. "I bought the textbooks of the Chinese School, Primary One to Six, and spent one semester learning to read all by myself!"

By November 1961, when he was posted to the newly-built Church of St. Bernadette at Zion Road, he could give homilies in Mandarin. While there, he became spiritual advisor to the Chinese-speaking Legion of Mary, taught catechumens who were "quite cooperative in correcting my language mistakes", became chaplain to different Young Christian Students (YCS) teams and Zhonglian (for China Catholic Communication). He was also advisor to English-speaking YCS, first in the St. Bernadette parish, then at Catholic Junior College. President of Zhonglian, Patrick Lee, who has worked with Father Charbonnier since 1983, says, "Father is a very humble man, more like a friend than a spiritual director. He really guides and trusts us, listens very much to our opinions and lets us try new things, always being supportive all the way."

Mr Lee remembers that Father was one of the first priests to use the computer for Chinese and English word processing. "He is a simple person who does all his daily cooking and washing by himself. He liked to watch Channel 8 TV programmes and used to say he could not understand what Singaporean Chinese were thinking and doing, so these programmes helped him!"

Mr Lee was one of the many familiar faces at the Golden Jubilee celebrations which Father Charbonnier describes as "a great joy". Remembering faces, adapting to local conditions and recognizing God in the various situations that he experiences are all part and parcel of Father Charbonnier's 50 years as a priest.

Wherever he is sent and in whatever work he is assigned to do, Father Charbonnier continues to "keep the same goal of making known God's truth and love". For example, "during my first 10 years of pastoral service at Church of St. Bernadette, I felt very much God's presence and grace when preparing people for the sacraments of baptism or marriage. When visiting many families around River Valley Road, Prince Philip Avenue, Queenstown and Tiong Bahru, I felt that Christ was bringing peace to these homes."

Though he was handed responsibility for the China Service of the MEPS in 1980, he was asked to return to Paris only in September 1993 when the MEP accepted seminarians from China for further studies in France. Father Charbonnier helped to train these seminarians and to make "China better known to French people" in an office called "Relais France-Chine" (fa-zhong lian luo she). "I have been involved in China work for the past 30 years and still feel very much comforted by the faith of Catholics in China," he says.