2008

MY GRANDFATHER MIGHT not have liked being called a contrarian. But sometimes he was, and almost always with good reason.

A self-taught man, my grandfather was a design engineer for the Bell Telephone Co., an original thinker. Maybe that’s why he never shied away from unpopular positions.

He would have appreciated the contrarian Gospel message threaded through the issues on which the church has stood against popular culture.

The list of "top stories" Catholic News Service compiles each year is pretty much a smorgasbord. There’s the Tridentine Mass and the newest clutch of cardinals. There’s the reorganization of the U.S. bishops’ conference and even the church’s struggle to recover from the tragedy of sexual abuse.

While hardly unimportant, these are "internal" subjects. Rather, it’s where faith intersects with the world that the church becomes, with good reason, contrarian – life issues such as abortion and the death penalty, immigration, war, health care, the environment and others.

Contrarians are rarely appreciated. Critics ask what right the church has to enter these debates. Why can’t the church content itself with holy things and leave the ways of the world to the worldly?

The answer reminds me of what a homiletics professor told us budding preachers about the Gospel: "You’ve got to comfort the afflicted ... and afflict the comfortable."

The church began its life afflicting the comfortable. No reading of the Gospel could possibly conclude that it is anything but contrarian. Jesus gave the kingdom of God a here-and-now dimension, as well as an everlasting one. He challenged contemporary attitudes on poverty, sin, charity and even the role of women.

It’s nice to know the church still does. Consider:

Immigration: While some angry Americans (and people in many other countries) look to higher fences and more punitive measures, the church takes a more measured view that recalls the Gospel invocation to "welcome the stranger". The church’s view is neither myopic nor Pollyannaish as it presses for a just and compassionate response – legislation that will protect national interests without criminalizing and victimizing immigrants.

Capital punishment: After decades of near-overwhelming support – including support by some Catholics – the death penalty is losing favour. The Catholic Church’s position (bolstered by the words of Pope John Paul II and the recognition of the death penalty’s link to other life issues such as abortion and euthanasia) has slowly eroded that support. Indeed, in December New Jersey became the first state in decades to ban the death penalty.

Health care: Because too many people have limited or no access to health care, the church has championed efforts to reduce the number of uninsured Americans.

Environment: Despite wrangling over humanity’s role in global warming, the Vatican looks to the heavens – and installs solar panels – and church leaders back efforts to reduce problematic emissions.

War: A church that follows the lead of the Prince of Peace cannot easily support calls to war. Many American Catholics ignored the church’s initial opposition to the war in Iraq only to recognize its validity today. The church continues to seek a just and peaceful end to hostilities and decries the threats of armed violence elsewhere.

My grandfather enjoyed challenging the status quo and making people think. While he might have bristled at being called "contrary", he would have reluctantly agreed. On the other hand, if the Gospel is any guide – and it surely is – Jesus would have embraced its "afflict the comfortable" role. Thankfully, so does his church.

 

Tom Sheridan is a former editor of The Catholic New World, newspaper of the Archdiocese of Chicago.

Singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega has inspired Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp to write songs and helped her find beauty and God in the least expected places. Watching Suzanne Vega live in Los Angeles recently was for Sister Wendy "an awesome experience because she gives her whole heart and soul to her performance". Here, Sister Wendy shares how she has grown in contemplation with Suzanne Vega.

IN THE EARLY centuries of Christianity, hermits and monks shunned the “world” and lived on mountain tops and in deserts to encounter God and grow in contemplation. In the 16th century, St. Ignatius advised people to find God in everything. Today, 500 years after Ignatius, we can apply his teaching to include the media culture as a place to find God.

Movies, books, and songs – they all tell stories about life, people, and events. When we pay closer attention to them, we may be able to discover something deeper about ourselves, or be uplifted by them spiritually.

Through the media, we might be touched by God, deepen our life in the Spirit and be inspired to view ourselves, other people and the world more compassionately, and, perhaps, even be roused to make the world a better place.

While secular films and books have been extensively used to uplift people or help them grow spiritually, contemporary secular music has not been explored to the same degree. But it is one media that we can profitably tap into. The stories and reflections in the songs of singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega have been inspirational to my own spiritual journey and contemplative life.

Suzanne Vega's songs are not simplistic and shallow pop songs. They contain reflective vignettes painted with lyrics rich in metaphors and set to rhythmic, almost hypnotic melodies. They include songs about the harsh realties of urban life and difficult subjects like child abuse, solitude and alienation. But she also writes some of the most beautiful love songs from a parent to a child. (“World before Columbus” and “As You Are Now” were written for her daughter Ruby.)

While her roots are in contemporary folk and her main instrument is the acoustic guitar, Suzanne’s songs have evolved to defy a specific category and her albums have been produced to showcase a multi-textured and dynamic array of sounds from natural acoustic tones and bossa nova beats, to industrial rock and lush orchestra strings.

Listening to Suzanne's eclectic collection of songs – whether it is the soft-spoken “Cracking” about one on the verge of a breakdown, or the upbeat “Unbound” about freedom – can be a contemplative experience, stirring one to look beyond the obvious and superficial, to delve deeper, and to ponder more profoundly. Though the subject of her songs may be harsh, Suzanne writes with eloquence and tact, and her calm and relaxed voice soothes while rousing her listener's soul.

Suzanne's songs are rich in images and concepts, and sometimes a single line merits a long reflection. The following are just two of my favourite lines which I have contemplated upon:

– “We strangers know each other now as part of the whole design” (from “Gypsy”). For me this statement resonates with the spirituality of communion – that we are all one, regardless of race, religion or language, created by the one God and all part of his loving creation. Recognizing that we are one with all things and accepting our place in that oneness moves us (hopefully) into and beyond ourselves.

– “Between the pen and the paperwork, there must be passion in the language” (from “Big Space”). Since part of my apostolate is to write, this line reminds me that whatever I write (and, ultimately, do) must be filled with a passion or love for it to be fruitful and it warns me against being mediocre or lukewarm in my ministry.

I am especially grateful to Suzanne Vega for helping me perceive beauty in urban life. Being a nature lover, one of the struggles I have had as a Daughter of St. Paul whose ministry is mainly in the city is to find and contemplate God in the grit and humdrum of city life. Place me in the midst of tranquil mountains and lakes and I easily find myself in contemplation of God's beauty, but quite the contrary is experienced in the city full of noise, crowds, traffic, asphalt and concrete.

Yet I live in a city, and my apostolate is in the city, and Suzanne Vega's songs have not only helped me discover the beauty in urban settings, they also have enabled me to recognize God and the beauty of the Divine working in ordinary events and in unexpected places like in the seemingly ugly, repugnant, or even obnoxious situation or person.

In broadening my scope of vision beyond the material and visible, Suzanne Vega has also led me to discover the therapeutic experience of song writing, a creative outlet of a contemplative life.

Listening to Suzanne Vega can be a welcome antidote for anyone scrambling through the mad rush of modern city living. Her songs help foster mindfulness. This heightened awareness of the present moment, the self and the world around inevitably leads to the growth in contemplation.

Suzanne Vega and her band will be performing in Singapore at the Esplanade on Jan 19.

Internationally acclaimed singer-songwriter Suzanne Vega reveals insights to her soul to Sister Wendy Ooi, fsp in an exclusive interview in Los Angeles for CatholicNews.

Finding beauty in urban (and rural) life

As a child growing up (in Spanish Harlem) you learn to see moments of beauty where they exist and feel grateful for them. Even if I weren't a writer, I would still notice those things. I think everybody needs some kind of beauty in their life no matter how hard their life is or how difficult.

There's plenty of poverty and bad things that happen in rural places too. Those hardships don't only exist in the city, they exist pretty much everywhere. So I think if you're in one of those situations where you're struggling really hard, you need those moments of beauty to keep you going and so you kind of train your eye to look out for them and to notice them and to be grateful for them.

The essential message of her songs

I think it's that those exalted moments that we would hope for happen every day. There are moments every day where you either see a child or you see something growing despite all the odds. Those are sort of exalted spiritual moments that exist every day. It's not just the Sunday when you go to church or for a special time when you sit at an altar. These spiritual moments don't only happen when you want them to or when you force them. I think that there's a value in every single day that you can find and that you need to appreciate because you're not going to have it forever. So I try to startle everybody, to make you aware of the fact that you're alive and that it's temporary, that you have to appreciate it and value it while it's here because it really is something quite amazing.

"St. Clare", the only song she recorded that was not written by her

I thought it was a beautiful melody and there was something in the lyrics that I felt spoke to my state of mind at that time. It's sort of like calling upon the saint for protection as you travel through the world.

Mother Teresa

It's amazing to think that someone who had such a vivid interior life had such a big effect on the world and that those vows that she made were very personal, very interior and that someone who had that kind of life can achieve so much in the real world because that quality is not something that we think of as being valued in our society today. (In society today) it's all about action and numbers, and how much are you selling and how much are you doing, and big sweeping gestures.

Meantime there's this woman in India who went through these experiences that were something you can't see from the outside; these experiences that she had were internal. So I've been just very impressed by that world that she lived in and how she was able to do this great work and not be corrupted by it and not be swayed.

It was surprising to me how she didn't believe in the penitent view of things. It was more like “make yourself well”, “make yourself healthy and go out and do God's work in the world” instead of always focusing on yourself and having penitence for yourself. It was like, well, don't think about that, that's not really the issue.

And she had that clear directive within herself no matter what and wasn't swayed by it and wasn't broken by it either. You can easily imagine that she'd go out into the street and contract some disease but she lived to be 87 and it's an amazing life and she wasn't corrupted by the realities of the world. I think that's amazing.

Her live performances

What I try to do when I'm on stage is to entertain and to make people laugh a little bit or to bring things down to earth a little bit, to give a little piece of the story that makes it more real because a lot of the songs are really pretty difficult. They are very dense, and they are about “weird” topics, and so a little explanation helps it and a little bit of laughter doesn't hurt.

Her philosophy in life

I have my own setbacks and disappointments but I think that you really need to find whatever positive thing you can from the day, from the situation, from the moment. No matter how dark it is or how depressed you're feeling, you must find a reason to get out of bed, even if it's just to make a cup of tea. And if you can find pleasure in that cup of tea, that's enough reason to get out of bed.

So that's what I'm always trying to find... those moments of pleasure or joy or happiness – just some reason to keep going. And I think that's really important.

The other thing I've learned over the years is that love is not just a personal thing between two people. When the Beatles sang about love and when people talked about love, they are really talking about a general kind of love, that you have to learn how to love your neighbour, love your family.

There's a part of loving that's impersonal and we don't really think about that much in this society; we are always speaking about romantic love and all that stuff. But there's really so much more to it and getting in touch with that kind of love is as important as the romantic part of it.

The use of Christian motifs, especially cathedrals, in her songs

I love cathedrals and to me they are very special places. I am always attracted to them. If I ever go to a city, there are certain images that repeat. There's the park, there's the cathedral, and the hotels (laughs). When I was a kid I just loved the cathedral because it's a special place, it's a beautiful place. I like this idea of getting dressed up and going to a special place on Sundays.

To me there's something timeless about a cathedral. And I think all of those images are very much in our culture. And even a song like “Penitent”... whereas maybe in America we don't think about penitence that much, but certainly if you go to France, Italy or Spain, which is where I was when I was thinking of that song, it is very much everywhere... it's in the images, it's in the paintings, it's in the atmosphere.

Her voice

Most of the time when I'm singing, I'm not feeling relaxed or cool. In fact most of the time I'm singing at the top of my lungs. And it's always a shock to me to go back into the control room and hear my own voice. It always sounds cool, it sounds relaxed, it sounds serene or whatever. I don't understand why that is. I sometimes wish that it would be a little rougher so that people would understand what I'm actually feeling. I think what I'm actually feeling very often does not come through in the tone of how I sing. It's all there in the words. All the turmoil and the emotion are there in the lyrics. But most people listening to me think that I'm just some sort of laid-back singer. But I'm not. I'm bellowing at the top of my lungs but it just doesn't come out that way.

Playboy Magazine

It was one of the first interviews that I was asked to do. I was doing the video for Marlene On the Wall and they wanted to know if I would do a little interview for Playboy. I felt very uncomfortable with it and I said no, and I got into a big fight with my manager about it.

The message of "Pornographer's Dream", a track from her latest album, "Beauty and Crime"

It's the deeper longing underneath it, what is it they're really longing for underneath it. The pornographer here longs for a more spiritual experience. It's a song that some people really do get and some other people don't get it at all. Some other people are like: “What are you talking about?”, “It's not true.” But I still think it is true on some level, maybe not true for each specific person, but I think that's what most people want. Most people want what's good, they don't want what's bad. They fall into having an addiction but I think ultimately what you're striving for is some kind of peace, or some kind of goodness and I can't help but believe in that.

Have you heard?

SUZANNE VEGA IS known as the “mother of the MP3” because her acapella rendition of “Tom's Diner” was the sample song used to test-improve the MP3.

Last year she was the first recording artiste to perform live in avatar form in the virtual world, Second Life.

Suzanne was born on Jul 11, 1959 in Santa Monica, California, but raised in New York City. She studied dance at the High School of Performing Arts (featured in the film “Fame”) and majored in English Literature at Barnard College.

She has been playing the guitar since the age of 11 and was writing poetry even younger. She started writing songs at 14 and performing on stage at 16. Her self-titled debut album was released to critical acclaim when she was 26. Her biggest hit, the Grammy nominated Luka, based on the theme of child abuse, continues to be a song of great comfort and inspiration to victims of child abuse.

In 1999 she released a collection of her writings in the book, “The Passionate Eye”. Her latest album, “Beauty and Crime”, a tribute to her native New York city which includes arrangements with lush strings (for the beauty) and electronic rock beats (for the crime), has received rave reviews worldwide.

Suzanne's official website is www.suzannevega.com.

VATICAN CITY – Pope Benedict XVI is asking who is ready to receive the peace that Christ offers with his coming to the world.

The pope asked this question today from the central balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica during his traditional Christmas address. Before giving his blessing "urbi et orbi" (to the city of Rome and the world) he offered a Christmas greeting in 63 languages, including, this year, Guarani, the language of an indigenous South American people.

"In the silence of that night in Bethlehem, Jesus was born and lovingly welcomed," the Holy Father proclaimed. "And now, on this Christmas Day, when the joyful news of his saving birth continues to resound, who is ready to open the doors of his heart to the holy child? Men and women of this modern age, Christ comes also to us bringing his light, he comes also to us granting peace!

"But who is watching, in the night of doubt and uncertainty, with a vigilant, praying heart? Who is waiting for the dawn of the new day, keeping alight the flame of faith? Who has time to listen to his word and to become enfolded and entranced by his love? Yes! His message of peace is for everyone; he comes to offer himself to all people as sure hope for salvation."

The pope expressed his wish that the light of Christ, "which comes to enlighten every human being", would "shine forth and bring consolation to those who live in the darkness of poverty, injustice and war; to those who are still denied their legitimate aspirations for a more secure existence, for health, education, stable employment, for fuller participation in civil and political responsibilities, free from oppression and protected from conditions that offend against human dignity".

He said, "It is the most vulnerable members of society – women, children, the elderly – who are so often the victims of brutal armed conflicts, terrorism and violence of every kind, which inflict such terrible sufferings on entire populations.

"At the same time, ethnic, religious and political tensions, instability, rivalry, disagreements, and all forms of injustice and discrimination are destroying the internal fabric of many countries and embittering international relations. Throughout the world the number of migrants, refugees and evacuees is also increasing because of frequent natural disasters, often caused by alarming environmental upheavals."

The pope mentioned particular zones of conflict, saying his "thoughts turn especially to those places where the grim sound of arms continues to reverberate".

He mentioned "the tortured regions of Darfur, Somalia, the north of the Democratic Republic of Congo, the border between Eritrea and Ethiopia; to the whole of the Middle East – especially Iraq, Lebanon and the Holy Land; to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to the Balkans and to many other crisis situations that unfortunately are frequently forgotten".

"May the Child Jesus," he prayed, "bring relief to those who are suffering and may he bestow upon political leaders the wisdom and courage to seek and find humane, just and lasting solutions. To the thirst for meaning and value so characteristic of today’s world, to the search for prosperity and peace that marks the lives of all mankind, to the hopes of the poor: Christ – true God and true Man – responds with his nativity.

"Neither individuals nor nations should be afraid to recognize and welcome him: With him ‘a shining light’ brightens the horizon of humanity; in him ‘a holy day’ dawns that knows no sunset. May this Christmas truly be for all people a day of joy, hope and peace!"

Pope Benedict urged "brothers and sisters from every continent" to "allow the light of this day to spread everywhere: May it enter our hearts, may it brighten and warm our homes, may it bring serenity and hope to our cities, and may it give peace to the world".

In his message for World Day of Peace, Pope Benedict said the responsibilities learned and the joys and struggles shared within individual families must be mirrored on a global level because everyone is part of one human family.

VATICAN CITY – Anything that threatens the traditional family threatens peace, because the family "is the first and indispensable teacher of peace", Pope Benedict XVI said.

In his annual message for the Jan 1 celebration of the World Day of Peace, the pope also said the responsibilities learned and the joys and struggles shared within individual families must be mirrored on a global level because everyone is part of one human family.

The pope chose "The Human Family, A Community of Peace" as the theme for 2008, the 40th anniversary of the Catholic Church’s celebration of World Peace Day.

"The first form of communion between persons is that born of the love of a man and a woman who decide to enter a stable union in order to build together a new family," the pope wrote.

"But the peoples of the earth, too, are called to build relationships of solidarity and cooperation among themselves, as befits members of the one human family," he said.

War and violence, exploitation of the weak, rampant poverty and underdevelopment, destruction of the environment and the arms race are all threatening signs that individuals and nations have not learned to live together in harmony and mutual responsibility, the pope said.

"Humanity today is unfortunately experiencing great division and sharp conflicts which cast dark shadows on its future," he said.

Cardinal Renato Martino, president of the Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace, presented the message to the press on Dec 11.

He said Pope Benedict’s concerns about the arms race, both nuclear and conventional, reflect the fact that global military spending reached an all-time high in 2006 and that, in many cases, countries have tried to justify their increased military spending by claiming it was necessary in order to combat terrorism.

"After the terrorist attacks against the United States of Sep 11, 2001, the international community adopted severe measures against the risk of terrorism," Cardinal Martino said. "At the same time, nations – especially the nuclear powers – began a renewal of their military apparatus and their weapons."

"On this basis," he said, "it seems correct to affirm that the current policy of state security threatens the very peace and security of the people it intends to defend."

In his message, Pope Benedict wrote, "In difficult times such as these, it is necessary for all persons of good will to come together to reach concrete agreements aimed at an effective demilitarization, especially in the area of nuclear arms."

In explaining the theme he chose for the message, the pope said the fact that a strong, healthy family is the basis of a healthy society is not simply a slogan.

"In a healthy family life we experience some of the fundamental elements of peace: justice and love between brothers and sisters; the role of authority expressed by parents; loving concern for the members who are weaker because of youth, sickness or old age; mutual help in the necessities of life; readiness to accept others and, if necessary, to forgive them," Pope Benedict said.

The pope said that anyone who weakens the institution of the family weakens "what is in effect the primary agency of peace" in society.

"Everything that serves to weaken the family based on the marriage of a man and a woman, everything that directly or indirectly stands in the way of its openness to the responsible acceptance of a new life, everything that obstructs its right to be primarily responsible for the education of its children, constitutes an obstacle on the road to peace," he said.

The family needs and has a right to a home, employment, education for the children and health care, the pope said.

But the whole human family has parallel needs and rights, he said, including the need for an environment that is used with care and preserved for future generations.

"Human beings, obviously, are of supreme worth vis-a-vis creation as a whole," the pope said. "Respecting the environment does not mean considering material or animal nature more important than man."

However, he said, the earth belongs to all people and to all generations and, therefore, must be used with care.

Pope Benedict said the costs and sacrifices required to protect the environment and to halt its degradation must be shared globally, but – as in a family – with an awareness of the limited resources of the poorer nations and the greater responsibility of the industrialized countries.

The pope said it might be necessary to establish a new international agency to coordinate efforts to ensure "the stewardship of this ‘home’ of ours".

Within the topic of ecology, he said, special attention must be paid to "the stewardship of the earth’s energy resources", to exaggerated levels of consumption in some countries, to the need to expand the use of renewable energy sources and to ensure that poorer countries that possess natural energy resources are not exploited.

Pope Benedict also dedicated a chapter of his message to the need for people around the world, like members of one family, to hold certain values in common.

"For the sake of peace," he wrote, "a common law is needed, one which would foster true freedom rather than blind caprice and protect the weak from oppression by the strong".

In too many situations, the pope said, "the weak must bow not to the demands of justice, but to the naked power of those stronger than themselves".

 

Editor’s Note: The Vatican’s English translation of the pope’s message is available online at: www.vatican.va/holy_father/benedict_xvi/messages/peace/documents/hf_ben-xvi_mes_20071208_xli-world-day-peace_en.html.

Popular radio deejay clarifies recent "sex talk" controversy at Christ@Work conference.

SINGAPORE – “When I joined radio, I learnt that I had a lot of power… to influence 682,000 listeners a week,” revealed Mark Van Cuylenburg, better known as The Flying Dutchman, a deejay on Mediacorp Radio's Class 95FM.

In November this year, MediaCorp radio was fined $5,000 by the Media Development Authority of Singapore for a segment of “risqué content” on The Morning Express on Aug 21, The Straits Times reported.

This was one of the challenges at work that Van Cuylenburg chose to address at the Christ@ Work conference. “Everyday for 11 years, I have offered up my day to God [while driving to work]. If I go [on air] and talk about sex, isn't God leading me through that?” asked Van Cuylenburg rhetorically.

He then explained, “We talk about sex on the show all the time, and we also talk a lot about family values. But no one remembers that because of selective hearing… We've never told you to go out and have sex, or have sex before marriage, but we've told you a thousand times to 'go and have sex and enjoy it because you're a married man'.” At this, the audience, about half of which listen to The Morning Express daily, erupted into applause.

Van Cuylenburg, who hosts the weekday morning show The Morning Express, believes that he can “fly with Christ” and be “damn proud of it” because he is best friends with God.

“When you've got a problem, you go to your best friend, and what do you do? You talk. When was the last time you talked – not prayed – to God?” he asked the rapt audience. “Take five minutes a day and talk to your friend… and see your life change.”

“We each have a relationship with God and that is what we must develop. God is waiting [for you] to make him your friend… When you can establish a relationship with Christ, anything can happen,” said Van Cuylenburg. “Ask anything from God, believe you already have it, and you will get it.” He likened it to placing an order in a catalogue. “Once you place an order, you don't keep asking for it. You trust that it will come.” - By Daniel Tay

"Do all you can to preserve the unity of the Spirit by the peace that binds you together. There is one Body, one Spirit, just as you were called into one and the same hope when you were called. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism and one God who is Father of all, over all, through all and within all." – Eph 4:3-6

 

THIS TEXT SAYS it all! The problem is not so much the toiling with the questions of who is right and who is wrong, or who has to convert to whose side. The real problem, our greatest common challenge, is our movement toward Christ. All believers have to become more and more Christ-like. The more we are Christ-like the more we are on our way towards unity.

Christ is not a doctrine or a lofty theory. Christ is the visible presence of the invisible God. In all humility, both Roman Catholics and other Christians have to show a great respect for each other. Vatican II document on Ecumenism (Unitatis Redintegratio) states that "men of both sides were to be blamed" for the divisions of Christendom.

The mystery of God present in the person of Jesus (and in us) is so rich and so all-encompassing that it cannot be adequately expressed. In that way, the divide can be a blessing. We have so much to learn from each other. We can enrich each other. We ought to consider ourselves and all baptized Christians as pilgrims on the same road, searching for the face of God. The more we are committed to this the more our unity will be actualized… more in love and service to humanity than in theological and dogmatic propositions.

It feels great that Pope Benedict XVI is keen on entering into dialogue with Muslim brothers and sisters… looking for common ground. It would be a shame that Christians cannot do the same… or better. We have so much in common already. Let us rejoice and grasp all opportunities to "become one". Working, praying and sharing will further the long journey towards unity. This should be our "passion", a passion coming from deep within our hearts, from Christ within us all. - By Father Frans de Ridder, CICM

SINGAPORE – The Church Unity Octave, dedicated to prayer for Christian unity, will mark the 100th anniversary of its inauguration on Jan 18-25.

The Church Unity Octave was founded in 1908 and held annually between the Feast of the Chair of St. Peter (formerly on Jan 18) and the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan 25. In 1916 Pope Benedict XV encouraged its observance throughout the church. The Church Unity Octave has commonly been observed with prayers, sermons and conferences.

In 1964, the bishops at the Second Vatican Council issued the Decree on Ecumenism, calling prayer "the soul of the ecumenical movement". In 1967, representatives from the Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches agreed to jointly observe a time of prayer called the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity.

Since 1968, the World Council of Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity have collaborated annually in selecting scriptural themes and helpful materials to promote prayer for the unity of the Christian Churches.

The theme this year is "Pray Without Ceasing" (1 Thess 5:17). Two prayer services will be held: the first on Monday, Jan 21 at Barker Road Methodist Church, 8pm; the second on Wednesday, Jan 23 at Church of the Risen Christ, 8pm. All Christians are encouraged to attend. n

SINGAPORE – While Catholics form about five percent of the population in Singapore, they have quite a significant place in the country, especially in the area of schools, homes, and welfare services, which provide part of the very important social safety nets for the population, says Barry Desker, Singapore's new ambassador to the Holy See.

Mr Desker comes from a Catholic family whose forebears were among the early Catholics in 19th century Singapore. He is known in political circles for being “quite secular”, as he tells CatholicNews in an interview at his office at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, of which he is currently the dean.

Mr Desker is concurrently the director of the Institute of Defence and Strategic Studies, a position he has held since Oct 1, 2000. He was the Chief Executive Officer of the Singapore Trade Development Board from 1994 to 2000. He joined the Singapore Administrative Service (Foreign Service Branch) in 1970, serving eventually as Ambassador to Indonesia from 1986 to 1993.

Mr Desker, accompanied by his wife Peggy Ann Desker, presented his credentials to Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican City on Dec 13. Mr Desker is a parishioner from Church of St. Ignatius and is a father of two.

As ambassador to the Holy See, Mr Desker's main focus would be “to develop a sense of the Holy See's interest and concerns in this part of the world, and to tap on the resources of the Holy See's international network”.

From his past experiences especially his time as ambassador to Indonesia, Mr Desker learnt that “papal nuncios are among the better informed of representatives in countries”, as they have “a good understanding of what's happening in different parts of the country”.

It is Mr Desker's hope that the Holy See understands Singapore's interest in maintaining a multi-religious society based on a secular foundation, and that the Singapore state continues to recognize the existence of Catholics in Singapore, and of people who have religious beliefs. -By Daniel Tay

Speech by Barry Desker, new Singapore ambassador to the Holy See, at the presentation of credentials to Pope Benedict XVI.

“THE COMMEMORATION OF the 25th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the Republic of Singapore and the Holy See in June last year was a momentous occasion. It has been an interesting relationship between a relatively young nation and an age-old institution which has played a major role throughout history. We had the honour of welcoming the Special Envoy of His Holiness Pope Benedict XVI, His Eminence Cardinal Renato Raffaele Martino as part of the 25th anniversary celebrations. It was wonderful that Cardinal Martino, who was the first Apostolic Nuncio to Singapore, should come back to Singapore as a special envoy of the Holy Father for the important commemoration.

“2006 also marked the 20th anniversary of the visit of the late Pope John Paul II in 1986. It was a significant event which touched the hearts of many Singaporeans from all walks of life, both Catholics and non-Catholics. The occasion was also marked by the release of a joint philatelic issue between our two countries.

“At the beginning of the third millennium, Singapore finds itself not only at the cross-roads of East and West but also a firm supporter of fostering meaningful dialogue amongst the great religions of the world. We recognize that people of all faiths have something positive to contribute to the creation of peace, harmony and mutual respect for one another. In this regard, Singapore shares the belief of the Holy See that interfaith understanding is crucial to global peace and development.

“The Roman Catholic Church has widespread following in Singapore. Its good reputation has been enhanced by the excellent schools it runs, the wonderful ways in which it looks after our sick, needy and the elderly and its positive role in promoting interfaith understanding. Relations between the Holy See and Singapore are good. One example is the bilateral technical cooperation agreement, under which, we have jointly trained more than 110 participants from five developing countries, in the English language. Another example was the highly successful exhibition, “Journey of Faith”, from the Vatican Museums, at the Singapore Asian Civilisations Museum in 2005.

“I am privileged to have been appointed as my country's ambassador to the Holy See. It is my sincere hope that during my tenure the relations between the Holy See and Singapore may be significantly enhanced. May I convey on behalf of the Government and people of Singapore our best wishes for your Holiness' health and the success of your endeavours to foster peace and harmony amongst the nations of the world.”

"The Holy See is eager to continue working with your Government in order to promote the well-being of the region and the resolution of conflicts," Pope Benedict said to Barry Desker, Singapore's new ambassador to the Holy See, when Mr Desker presented his credentials at the Vatican on Dec 13, 2007. Below is the pope's address:

“I AM GRATEFUL for your kind words and for the greetings you bring from President Sellapan Ramanathan. Please extend to him my respectful good wishes and the assurance of my prayers for the peace and prosperity of all the people of your nation.

“For over twenty-five years now, the Holy See has enjoyed excellent diplomatic relations with Singapore, and looks forward to strengthening them further in the years ahead. As one of the most developed countries in South-East Asia, Singapore has a significant contribution to make to the economic and social advancement of the region. While many parts of South-East Asia continue to suffer from the effects of poverty, crime, and political unrest, Singapore, as a prosperous, well-ordered and democratic country, gives an important lead that can offer hope and inspiration to others. The Holy See is eager to continue working with your Government in order to promote the well-being of the region and the resolution of conflicts.

“Economic success, however, needs a firm ethical grounding if it is to bring lasting benefits to society. Indeed the needs of the person must always be placed at the heart of economic enterprise, since, as the Second Vatican Council teaches, the human person is “the source, the centre, and the purpose of all economic and social life” (Gaudium et Spes, 63).

“Likewise, an authentic democracy is not merely the result of a formal observation of a set of rules, but is “the fruit of a convinced acceptance of the values that inspire democratic procedures: the dignity of every human person, the respect of human rights, commitment to the common good” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 407).

“For this reason I encourage your Government in its efforts to involve all citizens and groups to participate in political and social life, for the promotion of those authentic values that lie at the heart of a healthy society.

Catholics in Singapore

“While Catholics constitute only a small percentage of the population of Singapore, they are happy and willing to play their full part in national life and to contribute to the common good. One particularly important way in which they do so is through the witness of marriage and family life. As the natural community in which human social nature is experienced, the family makes a unique and irreplaceable contribution to the good of society.

“Indeed, a healthy state of married and family life is the best guarantee against the damaging effects of individualism or collectivism, because “within the family the person is always at the centre of attention as an end and never as a means” (Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, 213). For this reason, I am confident that your Government will wish to continue safeguarding the vital part played in society by the institution of marriage and by the family.

“In championing human rights, the Church is especially concerned to defend the universal rights to life and to religious freedom (cf. Message for the 2007 World Day of Peace, 4). The right to life, from conception to natural death, is the first among rights, and the condition for all others. Moreover, the effective recognition of the right to freedom of conscience and religious freedom is one of the most serious duties of every community that truly wishes to ensure the good of the individual and of society. Your Government is known for its commitment to initiatives aimed at promoting dialogue, respect and cooperation between different religious groups, of particular importance in view of the diverse ethnic and religious affiliation of your population. Be assured that the Holy See is also willing to work with your Government in this area in order to promote common objectives.

“Recent years have seen a tragic escalation in international terrorism, often linked to religious motives, and South-East Asia has not been spared the effects of this disturbing development. The Holy See firmly rejects the manipulation of religion for political purposes, and especially the attempt to justify violence in this way. This new threat to world peace calls for a renewed commitment on the part of States to the implementation of international humanitarian law (cf. Message for the 2007 World Day of Peace, 14). The support shown by your Government for global peace-keeping initiatives is a sign of Singapore's firm resolve to contribute to this worthy goal. The Catholic Church shares the concern of all those who seek to limit the suffering caused by armed conflict, and to promote the peaceful coexistence of peoples and nations.

“Your Excellency, I pray that the diplomatic mission which you begin today will further strengthen the fruitful relations between the Holy See and your country. I assure you that the various departments of the Roman Curia are always ready to offer help and support in the fulfilment of your duties. I invoke upon you, your family, and all the people of Singapore God's abundant blessings.”

SINGAPORE – Delegates from 12 countries in the region attended the 8th Asia-Pacific Lasallian Youth Congress (APLYC8) in Singapore from Dec 2 to 8 at St. Patrick’s School.

The Lasallian family at the conference formed a very diverse group in terms of culture, socio-political and economic realities, allowing for conference delegates to celebrate the many ways the Lasallian mission is lived and expressed, noted Anita Sebastian, Corporate Communications Executive from St. Joseph’s Institution (SJI).

The opening of APLYC8 was celebrated with a Mass, followed by dinner.

Minister for Foreign Affairs George Yeo dropped in for an informal visit and dined with the delegates.

A notable presence during the congress was Brother Thomas Johnson, Vicar General of the La Salle Brothers in Rome. He shared with the delegates the service projects that Lasallian youths from around the world were involved in.

Brother Michael Broughton, Brother President of SJI, spoke about the Founder John Baptist de La Salle, who, in 1680 at age 29, invited young men to join him in devoting themselves to the education of youth.

"Everywhere there are children who need an education that will open for them greater opportunities in the future," Brother Michael said.

Delegates were treated to a play showcasing De La Salle’s life and the story of Father Beurel.

Kenny Wong, Director of La Salle Centre, which develops and runs formation programmes for the staff and students of Lasallian schools in Singapore, describes APLYC8 as "a wonderful opportunity to have the chance to work with other people in the region".

Delegates also shared their experiences of their work back home. This included cleaning one-room flats occupied by the elderly in Singapore, spearheading programmes such as English Sharpening Courses in Pakistan to help reduce child labour and empower women, and providing medical attention to over a thousand homes in the Philippines.

As APLYC8 came to a close, Brother John D’Cruz of La Salle Centre, Malaysia, concluded, "We value the human and spiritual education of all people, especially the poor."

 

SINGAPORE – ACTS (Archdiocesan Commission for the Tamil Speaking) celebrated its Silver Jubilee on Sunday Nov 18 at Church of Our Lady of Lourdes. The celebration was attended by members from seven parishes that celebrate Tamil Masses – Risen Christ, Blessed Sacrament, Christ the King, Our Lady Star of the Sea, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Anthony and Our Lady of Lourdes.

In the last two years, ACTS has increased its programmes to meet the spiritual and social needs of its members. Social events and church activities, including a retreat, were held for youth last year. Last September, a three-day Family Retreat was held at Majodi, Malaysia, the first time in 25 years that ACTS has held a retreat outside Singapore.

A Silver Jubilee Dinner was held at Park Royal Hotel on Dec 1 and attended by guest of honour Msgr Eugene Vaz and more than 300 people. Msgr Vaz was "very happy to note that we have organized this event so well and that we are building communities amongst our people", observed ACTS Chairman Adolph John Dorairaj.

More information on ACTS can be found at www.tamilcatholic.org.sg - By Joyce Gan

WASHINGTON – The U.N. General Assembly voted on Dec 18 to ratify a non binding resolution calling for a moratorium on executions "with a view to abolishing the death penalty".

The resolution – approved 104-54, with 29 abstentions – states that "there is no conclusive evidence of the death penalty’s deterrent value and that any miscarriage or failure of justice in the death penalty’s implementation is irreversible and irreparable".

SINGAPORE – The second batch of lay counsellors have graduated from a one-year lay counselling course conducted by Family Life Society and are now ready to be deployed in parishes where they will provide a listening ear to those who may find life difficult, confusing or painful.

The 21 counsellors received their certificates of achievement and counselling from Archbishop Nicholas Chia on Dec 22, 2007.

The course includes theoretical inputs, role play and clinical supervision.

"I hope that the skills I acquired can be put into actual service to those who approach us for help," said newly commissioned lay counsellor Leny Januar, 42.

With this new batch, one-third of the parishes in Singapore can now be served.

Counselling is now available at the following churches: Holy Family, Our Lady of Perpetual Succour, St. Anne’s, St. Vincent de Paul, Risen Christ, St. Bernadette, St. Anthony, St. Francis of Assisi, Blessed Sacrament, St. Joseph (Bukit Timah), and also at CANA the Catholic Centre.

Call 6382 0688 for time and availability or visit www.familylife.sg for latest updates. n

I WATCHED A young mother of three-year-old twins separate her boys with the stern words, "It is not nice to hit your brother. Hitting hurts. If you want the toy, you may not hit; ask for it nicely and wait until his turn is up." There was frustration in her voice as if she had tried to teach this lesson unsuccessfully many times before.

Parenting takes patience and persistence. Correcting children’s behaviour sometimes feels like a thankless and ineffectual task. It seems that when one misbehaviour is overcome another replaces it.

Parents get tired and sometimes want to give up! But parents’ constant efforts to correct children’s behaviour actually bring the good news of Jesus Christ into their lives and into the world. That’s an awesome and lifelong job!

Effective discipline in the home is essential for children who want to succeed in school, in work and in all of life! Most importantly, it is basic faith formation for children. Teaching siblings to resolve their conflicts by talking, patience and negotiation is giving them the skills to be peacemakers.

Becoming peacemakers is one of the essential characteristics of Christian behaviour as outlined in the Eight Beatitudes.

The Sermon on the Mount is about molding character, and that fits naturally into the intricate web of relationships and activities of family life. In Matthew’s Gospel, the Eight Beatitudes are followed by Jesus’ words to his followers that they are to be a "light" to the world. Families too have the intimate and day-to-day opportunity to shape one another in those characteristics which make both good citizens and exemplary Christians who bring Gospel living into the world.

Every member of the family has the opportunity now and then to practise being merciful to one another, for example. Most children have a natural stroke of mercy inside them. I was impressed to see a kindergarten boy hand over his own helium balloon to his little brother when the wind blew the brother’s away.

Becoming a merciful person is learned early in life, long before formal religious education begins.

The family is usually the first place one encounters death. It seems paradoxical that those who are mourning could be blessed or "highly favoured" as one beatitude says. Facing loss, death and disappointment with courage and trust in God’s providence is part of the essential character of being a Christian.

When my own small children observed my grief at the death of my mother years ago, they learned that grief could be tempered by our faith in Mom’s eternal reward in the presence of Jesus who is with us in our sorrow.

Adults and children alike learn this through the example and counsel of parents and close family members before they have studied or memorized the Eight Beatitudes in school.

Teaching the Eight Beatitudes at home is not something extra added on to a parent’s already overloaded schedule. Resisting evil and becoming pure of heart are lessons woven into the fabric of everyday encounters, learned first by observation, almost by osmosis!

Catholic tradition sees the home as the "domestic church" because children and parents alike learn to "thirst for justice" and be "poor in spirit" long before formal religious formation begins.

Research in child development reveals that children’s values are established to a great extent in the first five years of life. Parents and grandparents along with other significant adults pass on the beatitudes by being honest in their relationships, treating and speaking to one another respectfully, avoiding racist and degrading comments about others, and resolving conflicts through communication instead of violence.

Families can never do this perfectly. We can only make daily efforts at becoming disciples in the way the beatitudes suggest. But with every effort every day, with each encounter between parents and children, a ray of light and a grain of salt are brought into the world.

It is no coincidence that in Matthew’s Gospel Jesus encourages his followers: "Your light must shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your heavenly Father" (5:16). - By Mary Jo Pedersen

Forty-five youthful participants from various Singapore parishes went to Pattaya, Thailand on a Redemptorist Overseas Mission Experience (R.O.M.E.) last December to minister at institutions run by the Redemptorists - orphanage, schools for the blind and deaf, children's home, vocational school for the disabled and outreach to street kids. The Singaporean youth were nourished mentally, emotionally, and spiritually by the experience.

WHILE MINISTERING TO the children, many of us wondered why they were abandoned and subjected to such injustice. Some of us were most moved at the orphanage when we experienced abandonment and acceptance whilst giving and receiving love.

“When I first entered the orphanage, I faced a rejection and felt upset,” recalled Cherlynn Ang, 16. “But I found consolation in prayer.”

As we were on a mission to teach and to give of ourselves, we were surprised to find that we were the ones being reached out to and evangelized, and we learned a lesson on unconditional love.

Babies with their outstretched arms gazed at us as we entered the nursery and, at that moment, we saw how much they needed that human touch and close contact that the nannies were unable to give.

On becoming emotionally attached to a baby after a day at the orphanage, many of us expected to return to the same relationship later. However, when some babies did not remember or chose to ignore us, we felt abandoned too.

Unconditional love is the giving of love regardless of who the recipient is. It does not matter if the baby does not return to you because the mission is not about loving one baby but the giving of love to one and all. This we learnt from Father Simon Pereira who advised that “acceptance is loving another baby and letting go of the attachment that one feels with a single baby. More essentially, we have to learn to understand that someone else is equally capable of providing the same amount of love that I would to the child, no matter how difficult or how much it hurts.”

Holding the child and watching the child fall asleep in one's arms, singing a soft lullaby to soothe her, truly melts one's heart. The security and comfort that the child found in us reminded us of the way affluence has marred the simplicity of love in a relationship because it was only at Pattaya that we really discovered what it means to love.

(continued on page 2)

A small group of us interacted with Thai youth at the Redemptorist Outreach Work for Street Kids and fostered a close relationship with them.

Our friendship with them was strong despite the language barrier; we found understanding in each other through gestures and having fun together. The Thai youth evoked shame in us because we often take our homes for granted while they had nothing and had turned to the drop-in centre to keep off the streets.

“The ministries really touched me, not because of the insights or contrast to the life that we're used to, but by the enormous amount of love that you discover in your heart,” reflected Rachel Goh, 16.

On one occasion, we took the blind children to the beach – a rather long walk – and it was then that we forged a friendship of trust with the children.

“I was amazed that the blind boy trusted me completely and allowed me to lead him to the beach, knowing that, somehow, I would bring him there safely,” said Trini Tan, 16. “It was amazing seeing him joyful, just sitting on the sand and feeling the waves. It made me think of how I was never appreciative of what I had.”

During an excursion to McDonalds with the deaf children, Rebecca Wong, 22, recollected that “there was a child who became very attached to me. From the moment he boarded the bus to the time he got back to the orphanage, he did not want to let go of me.

During lunch, he only had four pieces of nuggets but he still offered me one. A guilty pang hit me. With the abundance I had, I was rather calculative when giving; but this child, with so little, was very generous. Seeing them satisfied with the little possessions they had made me realize that I was caught up in materialistic ways, to the extent that I forgot how to be appreciative of the little things I had. Through this experience, I learnt that true happiness is being able to enjoy the moments and things that I have, and not demand for more.”

The visit is over. People might ask if we have achieved much of lasting value for the children we ministered to. That does not really matter. For, in the words of the late Father Raymond Brennan, founder of the Father Ray Foundation: “Do not worry if you can't give the best to every child, you have given your very best.”

The spirit of love and evangelization continues to burn within us. The dream goes on – R.O.M.E. in Singapore. This is our post-mission challenge. By Rebecca Wong, Trini Tan and Rachel Goh

THE IDEA OF going on a mission trip, conceived in March 2007, was to let the youth have an experience of what it is like to live simply. At Wiang Kaen in Chiang Rai, the students did not have the usual comforts, but they still found immense joy in being where they were.

The mission centre where the teachers and students lived and worked was set up some 17 years ago by Father Paul Anurak Prachongkit, a Thai missionary and Sister Bernard Pranee Trithara, an Infant Jesus nun. The centre was set up to provide support for children from the Hmong and Mien tribes by giving them an opportunity to receive an education.

Starting off with a rustic hut, "divine providence" – as Sister Bernard calls it – has over time, made possible dormitories and proper sanitation facilities for the children. The centre now provides for the education, food and lodging of 56 children.

Prior to the trip, the IJ students and teachers combined efforts to raise funds for the centre. They spent three weekends at Church of the Risen Christ, Church of St. Vincent de Paul and Church of St. Joseph (Bukit Timah) respectively to sell handicrafts such as bookmarks, pouches and greeting cards – all handmade by the children at the mission centre. Parishoners from these churches were supportive and gave generously. Their fundraising in school was well-supported by the staff and students.

During the trip, the participants engaged in various activities which gave them an insight into what it means to live a simple life. They planted vegetables, harvested rice in the fields of a local family, visited the rural schools, got a taste of life in a tribal village and spent some time bringing cheer to the youth at the mission centre.

It was remarkable how the students, despite the language barrier, reached out to the Thai children. As the days unfolded, the universal gestures of smiles and hugs became the predominant mode of communication and the universal values of friendship, love and joy their sustenance.

During personal quiet time, reflections and group sharing, much of what was going on in the depths of each participant was revealed. Each of them realized that all persons possessed within themselves a human capacity to love and reach out to those in need. As they gathered the rice stalks in the fields, they expressed their appreciation for every grain of rice they ate. As they reached out to the children and villagers, they were awakened to the fact that every human person – regardless of culture – was their fellow brother or sister in Christ. As they lived in simple conditions, they realised their ability to adapt to any situation as long as they tried.

The group had informally made the Prayer of St. Francis their theme song of the trip and true to their vocations as IJ students and educators, they learnt what it really means to live a life that is Simple in Virtue, Steadfast in Duty. - By Michelle Tan

Snippets from the students

"I learnt that with so little, and with such simplicity, the kids were able to fully enjoy themselves. Whereas, we, who have so much more (materially) are never content."

– Annabelle Fernandez

 

"It amazed me how simply the children led their life but yet they were so much spiritually happier than us... I learnt that the simple things in life can be so beautiful and much more meaningful than high technological stuff like TV or computer."

– Mellissa Lim

 

"Seeing the kids made me realize how complicated our lives are, with all the scheming and backstabbing. The kids taught me to love everyone around me. They appreciate every little thing they have around them and their lives are so simple and carefree."

– Marilyn Tan

 

"We all learned how to plant vegetables and how hard the children have to work to feed themselves. I believe this helped all of us to understand that the food that we eat does not come easy and it probably comes from people like these children who have to start planting at such a young age."

– Shermaine Ng

 

"Here in Singapore, we may complain about our parents and about not having what we want. We are totally unaware of the fact that we are actually living in a lap of luxury compared to the people there. Most could not even afford to buy even the cheapest item they want; they have to consider what they can live without."

– Maetzy Tan

WHEN VISITING KRUNG Jor refugee camp at the Thai-Burmese border, beware the black sesame rice cakes. Dipped in sugar, these crispy and chewy snacks are highly addictive.

At first, I felt guilty for finishing the cakes every time our bowls were refilled. The refugees are not well-off, and every bite I took meant one less for them. Their happy and thankful expressions, however, helped to ease my conscience.

Yes, the refugees have many material needs, but far more important to them is their pride and dignity as hosts. By accepting their hospitality, I acknowledged them as friends and equals – and I believe they treasure such respect far more than money or gifts.

The generosity with which the refugees welcome their visitors also proves a point. They might have lost their homes, possessions and way of life, but they remain a loving community who are happy to share the little they have.

The 600 refugees at Krung Jor camp are from the Shan tribe, one of many ethnic minority groups who have fled violence and exploitation in Burma. Most of the refugees were peaceful farmers who were caught in the crossfire when the Burmese military fought against rebel armies. 140,000 refugees now live in official camps in Thailand, but there are thousands more, including the Shan, who are not recognized by the Thai government.

Last November, 10 volunteers from the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) Singapore and Christ the King parish visited the camp as part of a joint project to support the refugees. While JRS provides them with clothes, electricity and other basic necessities, we also stress the importance of accompaniment – getting to know the refugees and journeying with them as friends. Such personal visits matter and show them that someone cares.

As the refugees are not allowed to work outside the camps, JRS assists them in setting up income-generating projects such as the weaving of native handicraft. During this visit, we were pleased to see that the looms we financed were being put to good use. Being able to engage in productive work is immensely satisfying for them – it restores some normalcy to their lives and contributes to their self-sufficiency. The refugees also lack medical attention as they live in isolated hill areas. The clinic we helped to set up is running smoothly, but does not have the technology and expertise to combat complicated illnesses. One lady died of breast cancer just three months ago; with proper screening and therapy, she might have survived. In contrast, Burmese leader Than Shwe was treated at Singapore General Hospital this year. Unfortunately, the victims of his policies do not enjoy the same quality of care.

The youth at the camp study hard, just like ours (I hope). The books and educational VCDs which we bring them are always much appreciated. However, while most of us can attain a tertiary or university education, the refugee youth face an uncertain future. Without identification documents, they cannot go to Thai schools, or work in the cities. If they return to Burma, they risk being killed by landmines or soldiers.

Despite these dismal prospects, the refugee youth are full of joy, laughter, and kindness. I recall seeing some of the older ones giving up their places on the school bus to the smaller children – a simple act, but one which led me to question if I would have done the same.

While JRS has been able to help many Burmese refugees in Thailand, the situation remains fragile. This September, we witnessed the military government’s horrifying crackdown on pro-democracy demonstrators. Till today, thousands are missing and many are expected to have fled across the border as refugees. Until the Myanmar government ends its human rights abuses, people will continue to come to the camps, and they will need our help.

To find out more about the plight of the refugees and how you can help, visit the JRS Singapore website at www.jrssingapore.org. -By Jeremy Lim

SEOUL – On Dec 30, South Korea marked 10 years since its last executions, thus becoming an abolitionist country "in practice" as defined by international human rights monitor Amnesty International. The last executions, of 23 death-row inmates, took place on Dec 30, 1997.

About 200 human rights activists celebrated the milestone. Catholic Bishop Boniface Choi Ki-san of Incheon told them, "South Korea has become the 134th country to abolish the death penalty in practice or in law. This shows that our country has become ‘developed’ in human rights."

VATICAN CITY – Almost three million pilgrims participated at public gatherings with Pope Benedict XVI at the Vatican and at the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo during 2007.

Of these, 2,830,100 attended the Wednesday general audiences, special audiences, liturgical celebrations and the Sunday recitation of the Angelus.

About 1,450,000 persons came to St. Peter’s Square for the recitation of the Sunday Angelus – 155,000 more than 2006. n

ROME – Internet helps religious quests. According to Google Zeitgeist’s second annual report, "Who is God" was the most searched question on the search engine in 2008. It was first in the "Who is...?" category. As for the "What is...?" category, love was top.

All this confirms that thoughtful and existential questions play a hugely important role on the Internet.

A study by the Pew Internet Project showed that in the United States, 64 percent of Americans connected to the Internet use it for religious or spiritual purposes.

The "religious" trend is confirmed by AsiaNews. Among its top ten most searched topics are: Burmese monks, the situation of Christians in Indonesia, Pakistan and Iraq, and relations between China and Vatican. - AsiaNews

 

SINGAPORE – "God has a plan for us, and it is that we end up in Heaven with him... (by working) with him in his plan of salvation," said Father Terence Pereira. In order to work with God, we have each been endowed with specific gifts, signs that God loves us tremendously. "It’s a terrible lie when we say ‘I have no talents’ because in that same breath, you’re saying that God doesn’t love you," he said.

Father Terence outlined a method to identify our gifts and talents.

First, we have to stop looking at others and become more aware of ourselves. By taking time to study ourselves and listening to others when they are talking about us, we may be able to discover what we are good at.

Second, we can ask our friends or colleagues what they miss about us when we are apart from them for a period of time. This will give us an indication of what our gifts are.

Third, the ability to perform acts may be achieved either through a given (natural) or an acquired ability (skill). Once one realizes that gift, it is then up to the individual to develop this gift.

When we encounter crisis in our lives, we may ask ourselves: What is my life all about? What am I doing with it? Where am I going? This forces us to look seriously at ourselves and hopefully at our gifts. A discovery of self will lead to a discovery of one’s gifts.

If we have yet to discover our gifts, it helps to begin by experimenting with things that draw our interest. We will not know until we have tried. As we are doing these things, see if we are doing it well and if it is done with ease.

"No gift is too small if we accept it and use it in the plan of God," said Father Terence. "Have you used your gifts well for the right purpose?"  - By Daniel Tay

 

Parishes in our Archdiocese share what they have gleaned about parishioners’ needs in 2007 and reveal their focuses and plans to meet these needs in the new year.

 

Church of Our Lady Queen of Peace will focus on "Small Christian Communities" (SCC) and "Engaging the Sleeping Giant" in 2008.

The Exco intends to zone the parish into six sectors and to relook old records of some "defunct groups" and to encourage SCCs to engage in home block rosaries and the Alpha Course that is beginning in January 2008.

PPC Chairman Galvin Loh says, "It’s common knowledge that only 10 percent of church members are active. The other 90 percent constitute the ‘sleeping giant’."

1. An Invitation Ministry will be set up to engage this 90 percent to serve. A mass recruitment will be held during the Lay Apostolate Sunday Masses where "Divine Service" forms will be given to parishioners to check the ministries they wish to find out more about, to be followed up by heads of ministries.

2. The parish also looks forward to screen more movies throughout 2008 to build community spirit. Two previous screenings drew about 150 people.

3. A Resource and Development Ministry will be set up where members will attend all courses conducted by the Archdiocese.

"Many of these are poorly attended and it’s such a waste. This ministry will ‘soak’ in the knowledge received and disseminate them down to the parish community," informs Galvin.

4. All chairs will be removed in the canteen, except for a corner for the elderly, on all Sundays in Lent 2008. This way, parishioners can partake in a collective penance.

 

At
Church of St. Joseph (Bukit Timah), Faith Formation is foremost as a focus followed by a focus on family.

Father Ambrose Vaz will lead parishioners on studies on the Book of Exodus after completing the Gospel of Luke in November.

The Daughters of St. Paul’s Book Fair will take place every quarter year. In between, members from the Legion of Mary will run a Book Barrow every second Sunday of the month.

A Family Night that runs for four months was launched Dec 29.

 

Church of St. Teresa will focus on family life, especially keeping in mind elderly and youth. A Golden Years Club has been formed for the elderly where they enjoy get-together lunches, games and songs to help build a welcoming community that reaches out to all.

There will also be two sessions on liturgy during the periods of Lent and the Triduum for the parish’s feast day, as well as sessions on St. Paul in October 2008.

 

St. Anne’s Church wants to focus on youth and the family life programmes implemented in 2007.

"This is necessary in view that St. Anne’s has one of the youngest growing community in the Archdiocese that is growing in tandem with the new satellite towns of Sengkang and Punggol 21. We are blessed with this sizable growing youth population," says PPC Exco Chairman Anthony Lim.

To keep this going, a youth ministry has been formed to take care of youth leadership courses and to organize events designed to appeal to and on harvesting youth.

 

Church of Sts. Peter and Paul will mark the Year of St. Paul (from Jun 29, 2008 to Jun 29, 2009) with activities centred on St. Paul. Bible Month (July), Lay Apostolate Sunday (August), a City District Vocation Prayer (September) and Mission Month activities will focus on St. Paul.

 

Church of the Holy Spirit has:

1. A parish renewal programme for the next three years emphasizing the renewal and support of single-parented, broken or contented families.

2. A Family Life Ministry with strong ties to Family Life Society (FLS) and its affiliates, will be set up in the parish to promote and coordinate FLS programmes and retreats, provide catechesis aimed at enriching families’ experience of the faith life of the church and to educate parishioners on the Theology of the Body.

The ministry will provide greater assistance to troubled families by identifying a network of services in collaboration with FLS. Faith-sharing groups and common family activities and liturgical celebrations will be organized to forge closer family ties.

3. The parish is working with the Singapore Pastoral Institute to conduct a Ministry Day of Recollection on Jan 26 for renewal of all parish ministries. This will be an annual event till 2010.

4. Youth Ministries and Teen Catechetics are working to "breathe life into the youth scene and culture of the parish", adds Jarvis, the parish pastoral coordinator. There will be quarterly youth liturgies, a Youth Lenten Vigil, youth leading Praise and Worship for the parish Triduum and a Youth Camp/Conference at each year’s end.

A new Youth Discipleship community will be set up to assist in organizing confirmation camps, youth camps and to support parish level initiatives and programmes for youths. Other branches of youth ministries to be set up include ministries in Youth Liturgy, Web and Media, Music, Drama, Dance and Youth Mission.

5. The parish is in the midst of setting up Landings, a programme for returning Catholics who have left the church for various reasons but like to "come home". - By Joyce Gan

 

SINGAPORE – The Order of Malta is making preparations to hold Lourdes-2 on Saturday Dec 6 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. The first Lourdes in Singapore was held at the Singapore Indoor Stadium in December 2005? This will be the main project of the group for 2008.

During the year, some 30 Knights and Dames will be going with Archbishop Nicholas Chia to Lourdes to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Our Lady of Lourdes at Massabille.

The Singapore Order has been invited to help with the international leprosy eradication progamme, and to join the Emergency Arm of the Order of Malta, called Malteser International, since there are so many natural disasters in this region.

The Singapore Order is equipping a new clinic and dispensary at Chiem Chong, north of Luan Prabang in Northern Laos. A MOU with the Ministry of Health of Laos has been signed. The whole developement was built at a cost of S$75,000 with funds provided by an anonymous donor. This project is being implemented with the collaboration and support of Apostolic Nuncio Archbishop Salvatore Pennacchio. n

SINGAPORE – Parishioners of St. Teresa filled the church for a concert performed by a group of 25 Filipinos aged 9-20 in early December. The group comprised Gawad Kalinga (GK) beneficiaries.

The talented group was spotted by Singaporean Aileen Ong at a cathedral in the Philippines and she made arrangements to bring them to Singapore for the concert. Parishioners of St. Teresa funded it.

Gawad-Kalinga is a faith-based movement which originated from the Couples for Christ-Philippines and is known for its house building projects. Mrs Ong founded a feeding programme for GK.

Pictures and videos depicting the gruesome effects of poverty and the quest of GK to help those in need were shown during the concert even as the choir’s passionate singing and repertoire enthralled the audience.

After the show, some spectators conversed with the choir members who shared stories about their dreams and struggles. They come from poor families, live in slum areas, are uncertain if they can finish their education and, though still young, need to earn a living to support the family.

 -By Eden Rose Dingal and Nervin Canlas

SINGAPORE – "My role as Associate Director now is to hold the fort while Wendy Louis goes on sabbatical for a year," says Arthur Goh, who is coordinator for the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults in the archdiocese. He was sent by the Singapore Pastoral Institute (SPI) in 2005 to pursue a two-year Masters in Religious Education in Boston. Arthur has been helping parishes in RCIA journeys since 2000 until he left for Boston. He returned in September 2007 and picked up where he left off – familiarizing himself with the goings-on at different parishes once more.

He shares that his time spent in Boston has been an eye-opener.

"It was interesting to see another church grapple with its issues and struggle to be faithful to the gospel in their own way. You experience similar, yet different, ways faith is expressed in a different culture," he related. Arthur continues to ponder about exploring how the changing times call for a renewed thinking in terms of religious education now that he is back.

How do we "enter into (an existing) reality to shape people to remain faithful in a life-giving way in spite of this reality"? he asked. He is considering SPI’s way of communicating to the laity, and its relevance in terms of relationships with people, priests and other religious organizations.

"That’s what I’m thinking about these days," he shares. For instance, Arthur is aware of how people in the archdiocese comment that SPI is ‘out of the way’. He then takes steps to provide a stronger online presence to maintain connections with the people. He has created an SPI Forum (www.catholicspi.org/forum) where discussions can be held with regards to Christian ministry.

"There is a necessity of really being together with people if we want to be a pastoral institute and to be pastoral. We’ve got to be really sensible to the needs of people and we have to set up a way to be able to listen to people in an organized way. Let them say what they want to say. [Because] before we can talk about answering needs, we have to let them talk about them," he says.

He continues, "I’ve come to see the top-down approach of getting people to follow rules, etc, may produce uniformity but it doesn’t (adequately) serve the communion we’re called to have. Dialogue is more in need to find the common ground we can work for. It’s the people who need to choose what’s best for themselves. Our job is just to clarify issues for them."

His primary role as Associate Director now is to assist the diocese’s Religious Education director, Father Johnson Fernandez, to implement directives and training, etc, as well as to manage Wendy Louis’ portfolio of pastoral training for Small Christian Communities and Parish Pastoral Councils to support all that is going on in parishes.

He will continue to contribute his efforts to his work with the RCIA. -By Joyce Gan

SINGAPORE – The Singapore Catholic Deaf Community spent a day tapping into their other senses to reflect on God’s abundant love during a retreat held on Dec 8 at St. Francis Xavier Major Seminary.

Nine members and two hearing volunteers participated in the one-day recollection led by Malacca-born Brother Lionel Thomas, a seminarian now attached to the Malacca-Johore diocese and a volunteer with the group for more than five years.

The day of prayer, Bible sharing, Praise and Worship and Scriptural Rosary ended with a Mass celebrated by Father Christopher Lee.

Susanne Patrick, secretary of the Singapore Catholic Deaf Community, found the retreat "spiritually enriching". She said, "Brother Lionel has managed to capture all of their senses despite their lack of hearing. He used aromatherapy in the room (smell), projected Praise and Worship in sign language (sight) and got the members to refer to the Bible several times throughout the sharing (touch)."

SINGAPORE – The first layperson to direct the Singapore Pastoral Institute (SPI), Wendy Louis, has left for a year-long sabbatical beginning 2008.

It is her second sabbatical since she joined the SPI in 1993. Her first was taken in 1995 during which she attained her Masters in Heythrop College, the philosophy and theology college of the University of London. Upon her return, she assumed the role of Assistant Director in 1997.

She was subsequently appointed Director in 2005.

"My role has been to focus the programmes of SPI to what’s really pastoral. For example, longer courses like Diploma in Adult Faith Formation (DAFF) and Foundations in Ministry Certificate Programme (FMCP) started under my direction. We’re trying to get the universities to give us credentials for programmes so we’re recognized overseas as well," Ms Louis said.

SPI’s role as the pastoral institute of the archdiocese is to translate pastoral directives into training programmes and various activities including Bible classes, to reach out to schools and other organizations and to form and train lay Catholics in Singapore in fulfilling the mission of Christ to serve. SPI also focuses on the ongoing formation of the laity. This includes support and training for Parish Pastoral Councils (PPC) and Small Christian Communities (SCC).

As a member of the Asian Integral Pastoral Approach (AsIPA), a programme promoted by the Office of Laity of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences where church neighbourhood groups meet to meditate, share, role-play based on biblical themes and to reflect on problems, Ms Louis particularly holds the idea of SCCs close to her heart.

"At the moment, it’s the best way for laypeople at the grassroots to get involved in the church on the common and basic mission of Christ. Not everyone can go off on missions or join societies but everyone can be a part of SCCs."

One who has been serving the church for almost 20 years from serving at her parish of St. Ignatius as catechist, choir conductor, church organist and on PPCs and faith formation committees, Ms Louis is also an Auxiliary of the Apostolate, laywomen assisting the bishop, since 1983.

Ms Louis’ plans for this sabbatical includes a month’s stay in the Lourdes House of the Auxiliary of the Apostolate where she found her vocation and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land where she has never been to before.

She wishes to spend more time with her family and also looks forward to a more restful time of renewal where she will do some reading, writing and reflection, as well as putting together of ideas she has been thinking about for the last few years, mostly to do with integrating pastoral approaches. -By Joyce Gan

COTABATO, Philippines – An Oblate priest was shot to death when he resisted armed men trying to take him from his southern Philippine mission.

Father Jesus Reynaldo Roda, 53, was praying in the Notre Dame of Tabawan School chapel late Jan 15 when armed men tried to take him away.

Father Roda struggled and resisted. He was beaten, then shot dead, and the armed men also took some valuables from his office before fleeing.

Father Roberto Layson, coordinator of the Oblate interreligious dialogue programme, said Father Roda’s death might have something to do with politicians angered by his work against fraud in last year’s election. Father Roda had received threats recently, but refused an offer of protection, Father Layson added.

Father Roda headed the Oblate mission on Tabawan for 10 years. Tabawan is one of 457 islands that make up Tawi-Tawi province, where nearly 96 percent of the more than 322,000 people counted in the 2000 national census were Muslim.

Father Roda was born in Cotabato province Feb 5, 1954. After his priestly ordination in 1980, he served in a Manila parish, where he set a trend he would follow the rest of his life: working with those he called "the anawim", a biblical reference to lost and forgotten people.

COLIN KANG WAS diagnosed with Thalassemia Intermediate at the age of three. Thalassemia is an inherited recessive blood disease characterized by anemia. Since then the Kang family had made pilgrimages to Lourdes, Fatima, Medjugorje, and Santa Cruz in Malacca, praying with Colin that he would be able to lead a normal life.

Not only was Colin able to live a normal life, but he lived a life that was full of meaning. Everything that he did, he did wholeheartedly.

When he was in Catholic Junior College (CJC), Colin and several schoolmates formed a youth group named "Doulos Adonai", which means "servants of God". Doulos Adonai organized camps and retreats in CJC, the National University of Singapore, and various churches.

Doulous Adonai led Colin to serve in the Church of the Immaculate Heart of Mary (IHM), where he taught catechism for five years. In 2002, at the suggestion of then-assistant priest Father Brian d’Souza, Colin set up the Post Confirmation Group (PCG) which trained and developed youth leaders over a period of three years to better enable them to serve in their desired ministries thereafter.

Colin believed in the youths and gave of his time to nurture and counsel them. As Father Brian observed, "Colin was instrumental in empowering the youth in the PCG by giving them confidence and exposure to do work at a parish level. He was a person who journeyed with the young people both within and out of the PCG… [This] allowed the youth to be creative for the parish. The young people in the parish were very active because he gave them opportunities to run programmes at parish level."

"I would say that my faith today would not be so deeply rooted in God if not for him… His tenacity for God’s work and his endurance and enthusiasm are what I and the other youths would try to imitate,"says Nicholas Lee, a pioneer member of the PCG.

Since 2003, after surviving a life-threatening operation to remove an abscess of the liver, Colin devoted his time to the youth in IHM.

In 1996, Colin graduated from the University of Buckingham with a Bachelor of Laws (Honours). He was called to the Singapore bar in 1997 and soon after starting practice he set up his own law firm.

Premchand Soman, Colin’s business partner since 2002, says, "A very large proportion of our work was either pro bono or semi-pro bono. Colin used to say that this was the charm of having his own firm. He could not stand by and not help someone when he saw that person was in need.

"He used his skill not just to make a living or to make money. Even though he could have earned a lot more working for someone else, he did not do that because he wanted the freedom to devote his time to his church activities."

Colin particularly enjoyed doing matrimonial work because he felt that he could help people at a very personal level. He was unrelenting and tireless when it came to championing what he thought was a just cause.

Colin was a founder of the Catholic Lawyers Guild (CLG) and was also one of the coordinators of CLG’s Free Legal Clinics and Pro Bono Scheme.

A food lover, mealtime presented opportunities to commune with friends and family. Colin also immersed himself in plays, musicals and travels to foreign lands. To him, every minute counted.

"He wanted to live life to the full," says Christopher DeRoza. "Friends, family, religion, food, he wanted to know everything, to try everything. He gave everything because he felt he did not have time to hold anything back nor did he have any time to waste. He wanted to spend every minute of his life doing something meaningful – whether it was to enjoy companionship with his friends, family, towards work or the church."

Colin felt that the years he had were a bonus and that he had to make the most of them. Gerard, a friend of Colin since Junior College, recalls, "I have never seen Colin pity himself or feel sorry about his condition. He never gave people the impression that he was ill."

It was not that Colin did not have his share of burdens but "what marks him out was the way he carried his cross… always with a cheer, hope and faith in heart," describes Mark Goh, a fellow lawyer and friend.

Life was a mission to Colin. It was a mission that he strove to carry out to the end and to the best of his abilities. He was a very good friend to many… but he did not stop at just helping friends. Genuine compassion impelled him to assist those whom he perceived to be in need.

Son, mentor, counsellor, role model, benefactor, brother, uncle, friend – Colin had been called all these by those who benefited from their encounters with him. - By Noelle Seet

FOR 40 YEARS, I have taunted high school seniors with the problem of God. Given their only recently evolved capacity to reason and its concomitant resistance to authority, it would be easier to market acne. The ethos confirmed them, long before the church did, as relativists ("Up to the individual"), materialists ("Show me!") and pragmatists ("This on the test?").

But I always held the trump card (I thought): the elegant human eye, a near-perfect mechanism whose exquisite parts are pointless without the others. A transparent lens corrects for colour and spherical distortion; an iris diaphragm fine-tunes focus continuously, even for those whose vision is otherwise impaired. The retina’s 125 million colour-coding cells automatically switch among wavelengths. They take three-dimensional colour pictures as long as one can stay awake, and they never need developing or new film. Then images converge into a brain that turns them into abstract ideas. And often if they are damaged they repair themselves. No way could that just "happen" in correct sequence, even with a gazillion lucky chances! It is as close to certainty as one can get that God, not evolution, created the universe. Darwin himself found the eye a puzzlement: "To suppose the eye with all its inimitable contrivances... could have been formed by natural selection, seems, I freely confess, absurd in the highest degree."

For 40 years, I was smug as a bug in a rug.

Then, to my chagrin, I found not only that the eye could evolve, bit by infinitesimal bit, but has done so more than once. And the defenders of that capacity were not only apostolic atheists like Richard Dawkins and fair-minded agnostics like Steven Jay Gould, but also an evangelical like Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project, and Catholics like the Brown University biologist Kenneth Miller and Jesuit George Coyne, former head of the Vatican Observatory. Evolution had more latitude than I had guessed even from John Paul II’s address "Truth Cannot Contradict Truth" (1996) and Joseph Ratzinger’s "In the Beginning" (1986).

It was like the shock I had studying theology, accepting that snakes never talked, or learning that scientists find the Bohr model of the atom, with its companionably orbiting electrons, as far from actuality as 15th-century maps: not useless, but quite inadequate. I was Alec Guinness standing amid the ruins of his beautiful bridge on the River Kwai.

The unpleasant facts: Limpets have just a few pigmented cells in an eye-spot, but these are effective enough to sense predators. One step up, split-shell mollusks’ eyes recede into pits; the marine snail, the Nautilus, has its focus narrowed by a pinhole lens. Octopuses and most vertebrates have sharp-focus camera eyes just like ours. Using computer mock-ups (and presuming a pre-existent photo-sensitive cell), the Swedish biologists Dan-Erik Nilsson and Susanne Pelger estimated that an animal could go from flat-skin eye to camera-lens eye in less than 500,000 years. Cells have "motive, means and opportunity".

But does Darwin necessarily displace God? For a philosopher, "random" means "haphazard, purposeless"; but for a scientist it merely means "imperfectly predictable", lacking certainty but still constrained by the laws of physics and chemistry and the particular environment. By definition, unexpected changes are a break from what had been pretty much predictable behaviour. And while mutations in a species over vast savannahs of time do arise from purely chance "blips" in cell replication, the selection and continuance of those changes is anything but haphazard. Only changes making the host a better predator (or more elusive prey), a more seductive attraction to mates and provider for young win the chance to continue in the opportunistic game.

So at horse races, experts who study the contenders, controllers and environment make quite confident guesses about outcomes. Similarly, atomic probers track errant electrons, and theologians grapple with the elusive Creator. The astounding rationality of the physical world, coupled with the analytic and imaginative powers of the human mind, give rise to both science and theology – making educated guesses about unseen causes of visible effects. Annie Dillard writes: "What is the difference between a cathedral and a physics lab? Are they not both saying: Hello?" Newton, Einstein and Heisenberg are like Isaiah, Paul and Rahner in exploring the same terra incognita with approximating tools, assessing all the pertinent factors and taking calculated risks. Despite our inadequate grasp of the divine nature, God would seem the best odds-maker in the universe.

Many believers in creationism and intelligent design balk at yielding much to evolution (or relativity or quantum theory), lest it jettison God after such long service. Atheist evolutionists worsen matters by reminding us that God gave us an appendix with no function but to rupture on occasion, viruses whose sole aim is to destroy, and a world "red in tooth and claw". In "River Out of Eden", Dawkins writes remorselessly: "This is one of the hardest lessons for humans to learn. We cannot admit things might be neither good nor evil. Neither cruel nor kind, but simply callous – indifferent to all suffering, lacking all purpose."

In 2004 the International Theological Commission of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith wrote in "Communion and Stewardship" (No. 69): "According to the Catholic understanding of divine causality... even the outcome of a truly contingent natural process can nonetheless fall within God’s providential plan for creation." God did not have to rig natural history so a particular branch of primates would begin to stand up and look around, any more than God had to steer us toward Babylon or Rome or Buchenwald. As Kenneth R. Miller writes: "If we can see God’s will in the flow of history and the circumstances of our daily lives, we can certainly see it in the currents of natural history... Given evolution’s ability to adapt, to innovate, to test, and to experiment, sooner or later it would have given the Creator exactly what he was looking for."

A constantly meddlesome God leads to the Deist "watchmaker" of the 19th century, consolingly purposeful but inflexibly determinist. Our lives would be nothing more than unrolling prewritten scrolls, constantly edited by Someone Else. On the contrary, could it not be that God is more dedicated to freedom than we are comfortable with? God could well get a kick out of watching even genes learning. Divine wizardry is in the power and fecundity of the universe itself.

Science still yields plenty of clues to a Designer, who might not be as intrusive as we have been led to believe. Every planet circles the sun at precisely the one speed that will keep it from drifting into deep space or crashing into the sun. The four fundamental forces in the universe are gravity (the attractive pull of every body), electromagnetism (bonding atoms), the strong nuclear force (binding elements within the nucleus) and the weak force (radioactive decay). If any of these forces were even minutely different, the advent of humans would have been unthinkable. In fact, according to Stephen Hawking, "If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, it would have recollapsed before it reached its present size." Conversely, if gravity were weaker, Big Bang dust would have just continued to expand, never coalescing. If the strong nuclear force were a little weaker, no elements heavier than hydrogen would have formed. If electromagnetism were stronger, electrons would be so tightly bound to atoms, chemical compounds would have been impossible. Any weaker, and atoms would disintegrate at room temperature.

Miller writes: "As God’s great creation burst forth from the singularity of its origin, his laws would have set within it the seeds of galaxies, stars, and planets, the potential for life, the inevitability of change, and the confidence of emerging intelligence." God works not in the intimate, palpable anthropomorphism of Genesis, kneeling in the mud to fashion Adam and turn his rib into Eve, but God is – and always will be – vibrant and at work in every physical law that evolution presumes.

Dawkins flirts with being hoist with his own petard. In "River Out of Eden", he writes, almost huffily:

"We humans have purpose on the brain. We find it hard to look at anything without wondering what it is ‘for’, what the motive for it is, or the purpose behind it. When the obsession with purpose becomes pathological it is called paranoia – reading malevolent purpose into what is actually random bad luck. But this is just an exaggerated form of a nearly universal delusion."

Thus is the core of humanity dismissed as merely bothersome, like an appendix.

But the very term "natural selection" seems a misuse of words, since only an intelligence can assess options and choose. How do we get laws out of luck, predictable "processes" out of brute chance? If what differentiates our species from other animals is learning and altruism, why do Neanderthals still wildly outnumber the wise? The atheist popularizers, of course, never use the word "soul", since the only difference they acknowledge between ourselves and other apes is a smattering of renegade DNA. Even the best Christian philosophers, however, have also contented themselves with the woefully inadequate "rational animals", as if that could account for a MASH unit treating North Korean prisoners or Teihard’s obedient silence.

Atheists like Dawkins and Carl Sagan go way beyond their scientific passports. They are disconcertingly learned, sorcerers of analogy, writers of sinewy prose. But when they depart from "how" into "why", they are way beyond their credentials, like athletes plugging Wheaties. To anyone outside a lab, the difference between humans and our chimp cousins is not simply a measurable difference in DNA.

We are the only creatures we know who are aware we are selves, able to use the future tense and to regret. Other animals know facts, that danger is near, but do not seem to ask why. They give their lives for their own but not, like us, for a principle or for people we do not even like. Only we have hungers not rooted in a needful body or coldly rational mind: to be honourable, to find meaning, to survive death. Ignoring those indisputable facts is the rankest reductionism.

Charles Darwin, brilliant herald of this astonishingly fruitful theory, was less simplistic than some of his ardent disciples. In the final sentence of "The Origin of Species", he concludes:

"There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved."

Perhaps we might find more motivated belief if we were more at peace with intriguing questions than prefabricated conclusions, if we could stop needing to prove anything and delight in pursuing the clues.

 

William J. O’Malley, S.J., teaches English and religious studies at Fordham Preparatory School in the Bronx, N.Y. This is an excerpt from his newest book, "Help My Disbelief"(Orbis).  

SINGAPORE – To prepare for the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity that fell on Jan 18-25, two talks on Jan 8 and 17 offering the views of a Catholic priest and a Methodist minister respectively were organized by different groups in the Singapore archdiocese, drawing around 100 participants.Father Frans de Ridder gave a talk titled "Christian Unity: Will we ever be united?" held at CANA – The Catholic Centre. The talk focused on the history of the Church’s brokenness and how Christians can realistically move towards unity.

Quoting from a wide variety of sources including the documents from the Second Vatican Council, leaders of other faiths, and anecdotes, Father Frans guided those present away from "using theologies to hit at each other", and to "be like Christ and have God’s presence, to share the same life". In order to achieve this, he suggested turning to the practice of meditation.

"It was very enlightening because Father Frans mentioned different approaches to ecumenism," said Carmelita Leow, 21, President of the Catholic Students’ Society at the National University of Singapore.

"It was an eye-opener," said Cynthia Choo, a full-time pastor with Paya Lebar Methodist Church. "The talk gave a message to stay alert and understand the heart of God. It has been 100 years since the first Week of Prayer for Christian Unity but things are still moving slowly."

Rev Dr Daniel Koh, a full-time faculty member of Trinity Theological College, had been invited by Scheut Missions to give a talk on ecumenism and Christianity from a Methodist viewpoint, at the Church of the Holy Spirit.

Rev Dr Daniel provided insight on the history of relations between Catholics and Methodists, how the Methodist church has been engaging in dialogue with other denominations, how the Methodist church in Singapore has contributed to Christian unity, and the lack of effort on the part of Catholics and other Christians in Singapore to engage in dialogue.

"Hard as I try to look for strong evidence of relations between Methodists and Catholics, I can’t," Rev Dr Daniel said. "One strong reason could be that many local Christians are first-generation Christians formed by para-church organizations. Many of these organizations hold a negative view of the Roman Catholic Church."

"There is now less resistance to ecumenical activities. I see some small sparks of grace," he said. "Perhaps with external pressures from the fast pace of changes in the world, we will come together more often, to give a common response to issues such as those in the life sciences."

"I now have a better understanding of the Methodist view of the Catholic faith," said Steven Tan, 70, from Church of St. Francis of Assisi. "Such events build bridges to connect people of the different denominations." - By Regina Xie

SINGAPORE – About 150 religious leaders and laypeople from various denominations made a statement in support of Christian unity by gathering on Jan 21 for a prayer service at Barker Road Methodist Church.

Christians came together during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity for the service that was led by representatives from the Methodist, Anglican, Baptist, Lutheran, Mar Thoma, Orthodox Christian, Salvation Army and Roman Catholic faith traditions.

The representatives took turns to preside over different parts of the service, which included hymns, readings, intercessions and a sermon based on John 17:6-21, in which Jesus prayed for all Christians to be one.

"We declare one Lord, one faith, one baptism," proclaimed Rev Malcolm Tan, pastor-in-charge of Barker Road Methodist Church. "Ecumenism and mission cannot be separated," he said. "We should not think that we can promote one without the other."

Besides reciting the Nicene Creed and the Lord’s Prayer together, participants were also encouraged to move around to exchange the sign of peace during the service.

"It was different from Mass," said Jerome Leon, a Jesuit novice, "though there were moments which were common, like the Creed and the readings".

Another Jesuit novice from East Timor, Sylvester De Jesus said, "The service was very good. You can’t find this in other countries like East Timor where it’s 99 percent Catholic."

"It was really non-denominational," said Mildred Ong, a member of the Barker Road Methodist Church. She had attended the service with her friend Margaret Loong from the Church of St. Ignatius, who observed that the attention of the participants was on the service, not the divisions between the different denominations.

"I think we should have more of such events over the year," said Father John-Paul Tan, OFM, parish priest of Church of St. Mary of the Angels, adding that he might have plans for his parish to be more involved in ecumenical activities.

The event was organized by the Committee for Ecumenical Movement (CEM) of the Archdiocesan Council for Inter-Religious and Ecumenical Dialogue (IRED), a council started by Archbishop Nicholas Chia in response to the exhortations of Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI to further relations with people of other faith traditions.

The CEM had collaborated with the different Christian representatives for the first of two prayer services. The second was held at the Church of the Risen Christ in Toa Payoh on Wednesday Jan 23.

Since 1968, such prayer services have been conducted annually worldwide during the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity, which has been commemorated since 1907.

 

 

 

"We wanted to have the services in different areas of Singapore so that more people could attend them," said Sister Elisabeth Lim, RGS, who was part of the CEM and had coordinated the event with others including Therese Huang from Church of St. Ignatius and Sister Susan, FMDM.

Sister Elizabeth noted that there were already groups in the archdiocese involved in ecumenism, such as the Taize prayer group and Christian meditation groups, which encourage Christians, and even Muslims and Buddhists, to come together to meditate.

"CEM will look at suggestions on how ecumenical dialogue can be continued. We will also be on the lookout for people who are interested in helping us bring greater awareness of the ecumenical movement amongst Christians," Sister Elizabeth said.

Those interested to find out more about the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity can visit its 2008 website at http://www.weekofprayer2008.org/index.html. - By Regina Xie

When Jesus learned that John the Baptist had been arrested, he left Nazareth and moved to Capernaum, a city on the sea. By doing this, he fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah that said, "Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles, the people who sit in darkness have seen a great light, on those dwelling in a land overshadowed by death light has arisen."

From that moment, Jesus knew he had to continue to preach the message of John: "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand."

John said he had been chosen to prepare the way of the Lord. Jesus was the Lord, and his message and ministry would be much more powerful than that of John.

Jesus knew he would need men to help him and learn from him, men he knew he could trust. He went out to find the right men.

As he walked along the shore of the Sea of Galilee one afternoon, he saw two men casting their fishing nets into the water. They were brothers, and their names were Simon and Andrew.

Jesus called out to them, "Come after me, and I will make you fishers of men."

Even though fishing was the only way they could support their families, the two brothers immediately left their work and followed Jesus.

As Jesus walked further along the shore with his new friends, they saw two other brothers, James and John, who were fishing from a boat with their father. Jesus called them, and they, too, left their work to follow Jesus.

Having selected the first of his apostles, Jesus travelled throughout the region of Galilee. He preached everywhere he went, spreading the good news of the kingdom of God, and he healed people who were sick with many different kinds of diseases and ailments. People who had been in pain or were paralyzed or tormented by spirits were cured and made whole.

Word of the wonders performed by Jesus spread as far away as Syria, and crowds from Galilee, Jerusalem, Judea and beyond the River Jordan formed around him. -

 

READ MORE ABOUT IT: Matthew 4

1. What was the first message Jesus wanted to preach?

2. What did Jesus say when he called Peter and Andrew?

Children’s Tory – By Joe Sarnicola

THE massive earthquake and tsunami of Dec 26, 2004 remains vivid because that disaster struck so close to home and affected so many.

It shattered communities in Sumatra and in countries across the Indian Ocean, from Malaysia and Thailand to India, Sri Lanka, the Maldives and across to East Africa. More than 300,000 people died.

Singaporeans gave generously to help rebuild those broken communities where people lost everything – their homes, their schools, their hospitals and places of worship.

Catholics in Singapore raised $1,523,775 to help the victims. Within a fortnight of the tragedy, Father Colin Tan SJ convened a team at the Archbishop’s House on Jan 5, 2005, to shape the Church’s response. The result was the formation of the Archdiocesan Crisis Coordination Team or ACCT.

It spearheaded efforts to help tsunami victims, and later moved on to help those stricken by other disasters.

Then an earthquake struck the island of Java, the Church raised another $368,060 from parishioners. ACCT felt it would be more practical to start a general fund to respond more readily to disasters. With Archbishop Nicholas Chia’s approval, a collection for the Disaster Aid Fund was made in July 2006, and raised nearly $460,000. Now, three years later, ACCT has again reorganised with a new constitution and committee structure. The new committee, whose term began on Jan 1, 2008, is chaired by Family Life Society manager Jerry Ow. Four members are from the previous committee, and the rest have been involved with disaster relief work in various capacities. “We plan to continue the good work that ACCT was founded on,” says Jerry. “We will provide aid in two ways – money and time.”

Since it started, ACCT has funded 22 projects in Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, the Philippines and Peru, helping people in the aftermath of earthquakes, cyclones, typhoons and floods. The assistance came in the form of new ambulances and healthcare facilities, help for widows to start earning a living, care for orphans, the restoration of wrecked hospitals, schools and churches, as well as cash aid for victims to get their lives back to normal.

ACCT wanted Catholics in Singapore to come forward as volunteers to help too. So it teamed up with the international agency Habitat for Humanity to build houses for disaster victims. About 200 Catholic volunteers have since gone on 11 mission trips to disaster-hit areas in Indonesia, Sri Lanka and India.

The house-building missions benefited not just the displaced natives but also the Singapore volunteers, who underwent formation sessions before embarking on their trips. “The development and bonding of the volunteers is evident in how they continue to meet and continue charity work after they come back,” Jerry said. THE sight of United Nations peace-keeping forces has become quite familiar. We see them in the media whenever there is news about war-torn countries. Made up of soldiers from various nations, the peacekeepers help to make the host country more secure.

In a world wracked by conflict today, whose job is it to keep the peace? To answer this question we first need to understand what peace really means. In Scripture, peace is not just the absence of war. It is much more than that. The original Hebrew word for peace in Scripture – “Shalom” – connotes completeness and that all is well. Peace in Catholic social teaching means life to the fullest, which includes right relationships with God, self and others.

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) describes peace as “the fruit of that right ordering of things with which the divine founder has invested human society and which must be actualised by man thirsting after an ever more perfect reign of justice”. (Gaudium et Spes, 78).

This “right ordering of things” is what we need to seek. What does a “right ordering of things” look like? Catholic social teaching gives us a good idea: respect for the dignity of every human being, solidarity among all peoples, striving for the common good, upholding the universal destination of goods, caring for creation and so on. The promotion of peace is therefore a very apt principle with which to conclude this series on the Church’s social teaching. So whose job is it to keep the peace? It is everyone’s job. We are all members of God’s peacekeeping force!

Peace is something we must each seek pro-actively. For example, do we address situations of injustice or simply go along with what others do (or not do), even if it affects the dignity of certain people? Do we share our resources and help meet the needs of others in the community, especially the most vulnerable?

Do we enable others to actively participate in the development of society? Pursuing peace and striving for the “right order of things” is the responsibility of every Christian once we are baptised into the life and mission of Christ. It is what Scripture refers to when it speaks of the reign of God’s Kingdom, which we all have a duty to help bring about.

Promoting peace is therefore not an optional extra. Sometimes we feel the tendency of not speaking up or standing up for something we believe in for fear of rocking the boat. We avoid confronting an issue so as to “keep the peace”.

But keeping the peace is not about keeping quiet. It is about seeking what makes for a greater fullness of life. For example, a relationship between two people can flourish only when they deal honestly, openly and respectfully with each other on the challenges that confront them. Peace is also not possible without forgiveness and reconciliation. In our zeal to “do good” we sometimes forget this.

Even as we try to perform a service for someone or make a contribution to the community, we fail to promote peace if our actions actually cause disunity and resentment among those we work with. Getting our point across through violent means is also never the answer. Sadly, in our world today, we see extreme forms of this in the increasing trend of terrorist acts.

The violence that destroys peace is also not merely physical violence. It takes subtle forms that we encounter in daily life too: divisive attitudes in our family or workplace, prejudice in society, abusive treatment and any other violation of the natural order of things. As Pope John XXIII points out in his encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the key to peace is in seeking what is common among us, in looking for similarities rather than differences.

This happens when people meet to “discover better the bonds that unite them together”. At the core, what cuts through our social status, ethnicity or ideological leanings is the common human nature that we all share. And this common nature requires, above all, that it is love and not fear that defines the relationships among us.

As God’s peace-makers, let us reflect on the following: • How closely does my family, my workplace and my community reflect the “right order of things”? • How am I called to promote peace in these situations?

We’re all part of God’s peace-keeping force ACCT chairman Jerry Ow (back row centre) with his house-building teammates and local residents in Indonesia’s tsunami-hit Aceh province.

About ACCT The Archdiocesan Crisis Coordination Team seeks to ensure a coordinated response by the Catholic Church of Singapore to provide aid for disasters and crisis.

Can You Help? ACCT welcomes contributions to the Disaster Aid Fund and volunteers for its overseas missions to help victims of disasters. Where to go Find out more at www.acct-sg.org or call Jerry Ow at 6488-0278

- By CSCC

 

THE sight of United Nations peace-keeping forces has become quite familiar. We see them in the media whenever there is news about war-torn countries. Made up of soldiers from various nations, the peacekeepers help to make the host country more secure.

In a world wracked by conflict today, whose job is it to keep the peace? To answer this question we first need to understand what peace really means. In Scripture, peace is not just the absence of war. It is much more than that. The original Hebrew word for peace in Scripture – “Shalom” – connotes completeness and that all is well. Peace in Catholic social teaching means life to the fullest, which includes right relationships with God, self and others.

The Vatican II document Gaudium et Spes (The Church in the Modern World) describes peace as “the fruit of that right ordering of things with which the divine founder has invested human society and which must be actualised by man thirsting after an ever more perfect reign of justice”. (Gaudium et Spes, 78).

This “right ordering of things” is what we need to seek. What does a “right ordering of things” look like? Catholic social teaching gives us a good idea: respect for the dignity of every human being, solidarity among all peoples, striving for the common good, upholding the universal destination of goods, caring for creation and so on. The promotion of peace is therefore a very apt principle with which to conclude this series on the Church’s social teaching. So whose job is it to keep the peace? It is everyone’s job. We are all members of God’s peacekeeping force!

Peace is something we must each seek pro-actively. For example, do we address situations of injustice or simply go along with what others do (or not do), even if it affects the dignity of certain people? Do we share our resources and help meet the needs of others in the community, especially the most vulnerable? Do we enable others to actively participate in the development of society? Pursuing peace and striving for the “right order of things” is the responsibility of every Christian once we are baptised into the life and mission of Christ. It is what Scripture refers to when it speaks of the reign of God’s Kingdom, which we all have a duty to help bring about.

Promoting peace is therefore not an optional extra. Sometimes we feel the tendency of not speaking up or standing up for something we believe in for fear of rocking the boat. We avoid confronting an issue so as to “keep the peace”. But keeping the peace is not about keeping quiet. It is about seeking what makes for a greater fullness of life. For example, a relationship between two people can flourish only when they deal honestly, openly and respectfully with each other on the challenges that confront them. Peace is also not possible without forgiveness and reconciliation. In our zeal to “do good” we sometimes forget this.

Even as we try to perform a service for someone or make a contribution to the community, we fail to promote peace if our actions actually cause disunity and resentment among those we work with. Getting our point across through violent means is also never the answer. Sadly, in our world today, we see extreme forms of this in the increasing trend of terrorist acts.

The violence that destroys peace is also not merely physical violence. It takes subtle forms that we encounter in daily life too: divisive attitudes in our family or workplace, prejudice in society, abusive treatment and any other violation of the natural order of things. As Pope John XXIII points out in his encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), the key to peace is in seeking what is common among us, in looking for similarities rather than differences.

This happens when people meet to “discover better the bonds that unite them together”. At the core, what cuts through our social status, ethnicity or ideological leanings is the common human nature that we all share. And this common nature requires, above all, that it is love and not fear that defines the relationships among us.

As God’s peace-makers, let us reflect on the following: • How closely does my family, my workplace and my community reflect the “right order of things”? • How am I called to promote peace in these situations? - By CSCC

 

THE NEW TESTAMENT emphasizes the centrality of the Resurrection for the first Christians, and Easter soon became the church’s central feast. Following the Jewish practice of fasting before a major commemorative day, the Christians initiated a fast before Easter. Unfortunately, the ancient sources about this are sketchy. We cannot say exactly when it began.

A late second-century bishop, Irenaeus of Lyon, France, recounted that some but not all Christians practiced complete abstention from all food from the time of Jesus’ death at 3.00pm. on Good Friday until sunrise at Easter.

Irenaeus also mentioned that other Christians fasted for a longer time, but there was no requirement for a fast, brief or long. No other second-century text mentions a pre-Easter fast.

In the third century, Bishop Dionysius of Alexandria spoke of a weeklong fast before Easter. Details may be spare, but clearly some kind of pre-Easter fast was developing.

But so was another type of fast, the pre-baptismal one (at this time baptism was mainly administered to adults).

The church administered baptism only at certain times of the year such as Easter or Epiphany, on the latter date partly because Christians believed that to be the anniversary of Jesus’ baptism.

But Easter emerged as the preferred time by the fourth century, mainly because baptism involved death-and-rebirth imagery, closely matching the Resurrection.

Baptizands in white robes entered the church on the day Christ entered into glory. The pre-baptismal fast merged with the incipient pre-Easter fast not just chronologically but symbolically.

Fourth-century bishops believed that all believers should join the baptizands in fasting before Easter, so this became a major spiritual exercise of the early church.

When the fast became universal, the question arose: For how long?

Ancient practices varied: in Rome, three weeks of fasting but excluding Saturdays and Sundays; in Greece and Egypt six weeks, but we do not know about Saturdays or Sundays; in Jerusalem, a full eight weeks but not including weekends, so the total number of days was 40.

At the first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325, the bishops worked to standardize the practice. They spoke of the 40-day fast as an established custom, although scholars are not sure why.

By 365, the local church of Laodicea (modern Turkey) made the 40-day fast obligatory, and others quickly followed.

Christian theologians applauded this practice, since it not only reflected Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert but also those of Moses (Ex 34:28) and Elijah (1 Kgs 19:8), the two figures who appeared with Jesus at the transfiguration, thus giving the fast a deep-rooted biblical foundation.

But should the 40 days include Saturdays and Sundays?

Traditions differed, especially in the East. But in the West, Rome led the way by absolving people from the fast only on Sundays.

And on what day should the fast begin?

Some churches relied upon local traditions and symbolic values, but most did it the easy way – arithmetic. Lent ended on Holy Saturday. Using that as the 40th day and excluding Sundays, the Roman church measured back six weeks (36 days) and then went back four more days so that the pre-Easter fast, our Lent, began on a Wednesday, the still-prevailing custom.

So this was Ash Wednesday?

No. Not until the seventh century did French churches sprinkle ashes on the heads of penitents during Lent; in Germany in the 10th century this sprinkling occurred on the Wednesday that began the fast.

In 1091 Pope Urban II made the imposition of ashes on that day a universal practice, thus creating Ash Wednesday.

As for the word "Lent", it was first used in England in the ninth century. -By John F. Kelly

(Kelly chairs the Department of Religious Studies at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.)

WE HAVE CHOSEN to follow Christ. But we are reluctant to commit ourselves more deeply. These days we need courage for commitment. Many people around us believe that detachment rather than commitment makes us happy. They believe it is better for us to keep our options open, retain our freedom and wait for the best opportunity.

We can distance ourselves from others by humour or irony. If you are a football fan, you may see this phenomenon in TV commercials during the game. Appealing to young adults, they are both ironic and touched with humour.

Occasionally some friends have asked me what a commercial means, and I don’t know.

Advertisers appeal to autonomy to sell products. The free person drinks a certain brand of beer during the game and afterwards drives a fast car home.

Another way we can distance ourselves is by adopting the detached air of the scientist or social scientist. All we want to look at is the data. We analyze. We theorize. In this way we can keep an emotional distance from others – and from Christ.

Scientific objectivity, humour and irony are all good in themselves. Yet in excess they can shield us from commitment, from intimacy and from spiritual maturity.

We are part of an individualistic culture. This is more a culture of separation than attachment.

I have not noticed that this autonomy leads to the promised happiness. For some it seems the reverse. Detachment leads to boredom, loneliness or even depression.

Commitment to a deep relationship with Christ is hard in our current environment, but commitment has always been hard, no matter what century it is. There have always been serious obstacles to personal spiritual growth.

The real irony is that commitment to Christ brings deep joy. Knowledge of Jesus and commitment to his service are deeply rewarding. The road to spiritual maturity is through commitment – not away from it.

Yes, with commitments there will be new curves to negotiate and hills to climb. Mature relationships can be hard work at times. Happiness comes with the courage to address problems, not in avoiding or denying them.

Years ago, in a moment of spiritual insight, I realized that commitment to Christ ultimately had to be total. Being very young at the time, I found this insight frightening. My attitude was more 90 percent for God, 10 percent for Crossin.

Commitment involves our whole being.

Some of us come to a deeper Lenten conversion first by seeking deeper understanding. We want to know who Christ is. So we do practical things such as beginning to read a section of the Gospel every day.

Many more of us come to commitment through our emotions. We see the example of another person following Christ in serving the poor. And our hearts are moved to serve others.

Ultimately our commitment transforms our whole being. We know Christ and we love him. We serve him in the poor and in all our neighbours.

Occasionally this conversion happens dramatically. This happened to a friend of mine who miraculously survived a motorcycle crash on a crowded highway. In reflecting on near death, he realized then how superficial his life of faith had been.

Most often conversion is a gradual process.

We realize that we will never be perfect. We will always have some personal failings. We will always need forgiveness and healing.

We are consoled by the fact that even the saints had their weaknesses.

Yet we can make progress. Inner joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit. During Lent, we can ask more frequently for this grace.

The contours of growth vary from individual to individual. Yet there are some common elements.

Conversion is giving ourselves over more and more to following Christ. Part of this surrender is getting our lives into balance. Our emotions often show us what we value too much. Maybe we seek success or recognition inordinately. We may need a bit more humility.

Part of this surrender is becoming less secular and more sacred. Maybe we need to consume less and live more simply.

Part of this surrender is reordering our priorities. On occasion, practices of prayer and devotion could replace frequently checking our email at work.

Our commitment to Christ flows naturally into our commitment to others. Certain neighbours are put in our lives for our spiritual growth.

Some teach us by their good example. Others in their neediness pull the good deeds out of us. We become like Christ in serving them.

Still others may become our spiritual friends. These friends, usually few in number, are those with whom we can share the joys and struggles of our spiritual journey through life.

In the sharing we come to a deeper appreciation of the Holy Spirit’s guidance. Friends point out the work of the Spirit in our midst, noticing things we have missed.

With the Spirit’s help we can commit ourselves 100 percent to Christ. And thus become 100 percent fulfilled. -By Father John W. Crossin, OSFS

(Oblate Father Crossin is executive director of the Washington Theological Consortium.)

VATICAN CITY – "What should the pope do or say at the university? Certainly, he must not try, in an authoritarian way, to impose on others’ faith, which can be given only in freedom," the pope wrote in his prepared but undelivered speech. The pope wrote that his role in speaking at a university that includes believers and nonbelievers is to encourage professors, researchers and students "to seek the truth, the good, God" and to not allow power, technology or selfish interests to silence consciences or belittle those seeking meaning in their lives.

"The danger in the Western world today is that man, precisely because of the greatness of his knowledge and power, gives up in the face of the question of truth," he said.

In the prepared text, Pope Benedict acknowledged that church people have not always been right about everything.

"Various things said by theologians over the course of history or put into practice by church authorities have been shown to be false," he said, but the example of the saints and the Catholic Church’s influence on the development of humanism and of various cultures "demonstrates the truth of this faith in its essential nucleus".

Interacting with those who do not believe, he said, the church is dedicated to promoting a search for truth and the common good, a search it believes can be found fully only by recognizing Jesus Christ as saviour.

ITALIAN PRESIDENT GIORGIO Napolitano sent Pope Benedict a letter of support, saying, "I am convinced this event would have offered a precious opportunity for reflection on themes of great relevance for Italian society, as well as all societies."

The president said the "manifestations of intolerance" and the threat of demonstrations were "inadmissible" and incompatible with the climate of freedom and dialogue that should mark a university.

Eugenia Roccella, journalist and writer, said, "It is a scandal that in a cultural institution which should educate young people in values of true secularism, tolerance, democracy and reciprocal respect, something like this happens."

The rector of Rome’s Sapienza University announced that he will re-invite Benedict XVI to visit the institution. Renato Guarini said the invitation would "be in accord with the desire of the majority of Sapienza’s academic community".

During the inauguration ceremony that the pope did not attend, a professor read the discourse the Holy Father had prepared. A standing ovation and students’ shouts of "Long live the pope" followed the reading. - cns, zenit

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