Saturday, 24 May 2008

What a time of Grace!

We had an awesome weekend last week as we hosted the Annual Vocation Retreat 2008 at Kampung Punggol. The Singapore Seminarians were the Organizing Committee and we had expected that we would certainly have less applicants than we did last year. Last year was already a track record when we had 55 applicants and 48 turning up on the actual day. We also felt that we had very little outreach this year and so had expected the numbers to drop significantly. However, God humbled us by revealing to us again that nothing is impossible for him. We did our part in planning and praying and the Lord did his part in blessing. Indeed, as the Psalmist says, “If Yahweh does not build the house, in vain do the labourers labour; if Yahweh does not guard the city, in vain the sentries keep watch.” (PS 127:1) God blessed us with 58 applicants for this year’s retreat with 55 of them turning up.

The best part of the retreat was that it was truly a time of grace for all of us. Many of us could sense a new spring time of grace for us in the local Church of Singapore. The Holy Spirit is moving powerfully in the lives of God’s people and his young ones are feeling the holy restlessness and stirring that only he can give. As our Rector said, “their passion and conviction for the Church” edified us and excites us for the future of the Church in Singapore. It is our dream that God will continue to raise up a new generation of Shepherds after his own heart; men who will lay down their lives for Jesus Christ and the mission of the Church in the New Millennium. I also attribute much of this renewal we are experiencing as God’s generous response to the humble pleas of his people. I am sure many of the participants were deeply moved to see members from the Serra Club of Singapore and the Divine Mercy Prayer Group of Holy Cross Church interceding before our Eucharistic Lord round the clock from the time the retreat started till the concluding mass. Thank you Lord for these fine co-workers you have given us in praying for a new generation of labourers for your Vineyard!

There were also some beautiful testimonies given by the participants at the closing Mass of the retreat which was celebrated by our Vicar General, Msgr Eugene Vaz. It was unfortunate that our Archbishop had to be at a FABC (Federation of Asian Bishops Conference) meeting because I think he would have also been deeply encouraged by these young men. Msgr Vaz shared an insight that was very enlightening. Our theme for the retreat was “Wrestling With God” (Gen 32: 22-32) and he shared with us that the call of our lives was to wrestle with God to such a point that we become totally bound up with him. Just as in a wrestling match, the 2 opponents become so intertwined until one gets pinned down by the other, so too, we often struggle with God in our journey with him to eventually become so intimately intertwined with him that we become bound up. Then, we can celebrate the victory of God in our lives. What a beautiful image and so true about our lives. Even our struggling with God reveals how closely bound we are to him. Such is the story of our vocations.

I was also very glad that one of the participants approached me after the retreat to share with me his desire that all of us who were present at the retreat should make a pledge that starting with this batch of participants; we would commit ourselves to change the culture amongst young Catholics in Singapore, removing the stigma of vocation discernment. He sincerely felt that every Catholic young person should discern his vocation as part and parcel of his walk with Jesus and as much as it is the ideal, the truth is that we are far from having such a culture amongst our young Catholics, even those who may be very active in Catholic organizations. I told him that it was excellent that he felt that way and that we didn’t need a pledge, what we need is the witness of our lives. When we show our contemporaries that it is exciting to walk with Jesus and that seeking his will in terms of our particular vocation in life is normal; others too will pluck up the courage to have a change in mindset. That is what we need the most at present. We need a change in mindset. We need a conversion of our minds – we need Metanoia!

Would you join us in changing the current culture that stigmatizes vocation discernment amongst our young people? We must repeat the exhortation of Pope John Paul II to young people, “If Christ calls, Do Not Be Afraid!

Friday, 16 May 2008

Is Silence Golden? Part II

We arrive at the week that ends with the Vocation Discernment Retreat. When one hears the word retreat, we think a lot about going off somewhere to re-charge. Most large corporate companies finance retreats for their employees so that they can be renewed and refreshed before returning to work. From a religious point of view, a retreat often brings about images of peace and quiet time for prayer.

I often look upon a retreat in its original meaning. To retreat means to withdraw. The English word is taken from an old French word retret. It is a noun derived from the Latin retrahere, which means to “pull back.” One retreats from the present situation (which is normally difficult or uncomfortable) to another (more relaxed) situation. So, for most of us who are filled with activity and noise, we retreat into a more secluded place where activity and noise are minimum. Retreats, for many of us, are times when we can be in a slient place to commune with God. However, here comes a little problem: the place may be silent and serene, but we aren’t in our minds.

Here in Kampung Ponggol, we have a generally silent atmosphere during prayer times. However, we may or may not be in a prayerful disposition. Sometimes, we are tired after an exceptionally tiring night of studying and we fall asleep during meditation in the morning. Thus, our prayer time is reduced. What’s worse, I think, is when we keep silent but we start processing data in our minds, especially data that has nothing to do with prayer.

In the traditional form of Christian prayer of lectio divina, our minds are pretty active. It’s when we enter into contemplatio that we are able to let our minds slow down and allow God’s presence to fill us. What’s more … God’s presence usually comes in the silence:

And he said, “Go forth, and stand upon the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind rent the mountains, and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice. And when Eli'jah heard it, he wrapped his face in his mantle and went out and stood at the entrance of the cave. (I Kgs 19:11-13, RSV)

Thus, it is a good practice for priests and seminarians here at Kampung Ponggol to have a way of getting into interior silence before we enter into the exterior silence that punctuates the various parts of the day. I remember that, as a seminarian, I used to take a small pair of gardening shears and snip away stray branches of some of our hedge shrubs when I was cooling down after games. It helped me to keep all other thoughts away, especially the frustration of how badly I played the game of volleyball or how I could have let that ball slip away. I focused on the trimming for about 15 minutes and would be a good silent frame of mind as I cleaned up and prepared for Vespers. I was misunderstood by a formator who asked me not to waste time doing gardening. I prayed about explaining to him but discerned that he would not really understand and chose to obey instead. I had to look for other ways to calm down and get into the silence.

Holy Hour is a very special time. I remember a parish priest remarking to me that most lay people did not understand the silence of the Holy Hour and so he attempted to fill up the hour with hymns and guided reflections. I did not question the priest as I felt that he would understand his parishioners better than I did; he was, after all, a holy and beloved priest. However, in the seminary, Holy Hour should only have a hymn to set the tone of the adoration and then, perhaps, a passage from scripture, to focus our minds on God. We have seminarians taking turns to lead in Holy Hour. The last thing any seminarian should do is to fill the whole hour with music and vocal reflections. I remember that during my time as a seminarian, we had one Holy Hour where someone used New Age Music, complete with crickets and birds, to keep us in the meditative mood! I remember that it didn’t help me to keep the hour holy.

As future priests in the parishes, seminarians should learn to cultivate the love of silence. The parish has no lack of activity if a priest was willing to look for it. However, even within the parish, the sanctuary of the church or chapel as a temporary refuge from the hustle and bustle of parish work is a definite welcome. I remember Fr. Peter Lu who “retreated” to the church every morning between nine and ten. Even five minutes of silence in the office between appointments could be a good time to recharge one’s spiritual batteries. God grants us, priests, grace to help whoever comes to us. The short periods of silence would help us not to forget that.

So, at Kampung Ponggol, we keep a practice of keeping the silence, so that when we are immersed in activity, we can still find the silence to allow God, in his small voice, to speak to us. We would be able to listen inside even when we are bombarded with noise outside.

PS: If you’re interested in lectio divina, click on this link to St. Andrew’s Abbey or their page on lectio divina here.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Is Silence Golden? Part I

Picture: Chapel at St. Peter's College, Kuching

In the seminary, there should be silence after nine in the evening. Of course, as seminarians are adults, formators don’t go around shh-ing whenever there is some sound. Formators trust that fraternal correction among seminarians would be enough to maintain the atmosphere of silence at night, especially after half past ten when some of us go to sleep and others need the silence to pray or study. Unlike the Carthusians, the formators do not demand absolute silence. We recognise that sometimes, we need to borrow something from next door or ask a question about something we were reading at the moment. The general quiet atmosphere should be maintained nonetheless.

As Singaporeans, we live in an atmosphere where sound is not a stranger. For most of us who live in HDB estates, there could be still quite a bit of traffic before midnight. The relative silence of the early morning could be pierced by an occasional passing car or motorcycle. For those of us who live in residential estates that are not part of public bus routes, traffic noise is not so prevalent but the sound of air-conditioners that hum inside and outside the house can still be heard.

Noise is so much part of life in Singapore that there are some students who would not be able to study without listening to music. It may be a common feature that students watch TV and do their homework at the same time. Some parents would ensure that this is a discipline that their children would not have, and insist that the TV is switched off until the homework is done. However, I think that no one would disagree that Singaporeans live in a generally noisy environment. Even if home is a quiet sanctuary, the time we spend outside the home at work, school or campus is filled with sound, if not noise. I am also sure that a significant number of Singaporeans look forward to some quiet every day. Thus, I believe that the seminarians are quite privileged because there are moments of silence inserted into the schedule that they keep.

Generally, we wake up, still encompassed in the general silence of the previous night. As far as possible, the first sound we utter is the praise we give to the Lord at Lauds. Father Rector breaks the silence with, “Lord open our lips.” The rest of us respond, “And we shall praise Your Name.” After morning praise, or Lauds, we enter into silent meditation. That silence is broken by the Entrance Hymn for Mass on most mornings. Otherwise we go to the refectory for breakfast. At breakfast, the exterior silence ceases as we enter into fellowship. The next time we become quiet again as a community is the five minutes we spend in examen before Afternoon Prayer. It is usually quite quiet when many of us take a siesta or nap after lunch. At about three we begin our afternoon’s studies and work. Community Games in the late afternoon once a week is normally boisterous. We enter into prayerful silence once again before Evening Prayer or Vespers. Many of us will already be in the Chapel twenty minutes before Vespers. Every Sunday evening, there would be at least 40 minutes of Silent Adoration before the Blessed Sacrament. We also keep a community Holy Hour on another day of the week.

Although it seems like to be minimal compared to the comtemplative religious life like the Carmelite sisters or the Carthusians, I am sure that it is helpful to us at the seminary to have these periods of quiet time.

Part II coming up!

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

The Alumni returns......

Congratulation to Rev Fr Andrew Kooi! He finished his Theology studies last year and came back to the Major Seminary to celebrate a thanksgiving mass on 5th May 2008. He was ordained to the Priesthood on 13th Apr 2008. It is really encouraging to see newly ordained brother Priests returning. This really gives me the courage and perseverance to continue my journey.......

Group photo with Fr Kooi, the formators and the community.

We are on a Roadshow !!

Roadshow at Church of Holy Trinity
(2nd & 3rd May 2008)

We had a roadshow over the past weekend in our biggest parish to raise awareness about the vocation situation in Singapore and hopefully to 'head hunt' for some young men to go beyond themselves.

Exhibition at the foyer of the church

Parishoners signing up to be Friends of the SERRA club. Good to know there will be more people praying for us.... Thanks be to God !

Some of our brother seminarians explaining the banners to the children who came to see our exhibits... potential for the future.... I hope...

Bro Jude David sharing at the open forum. 
If you wanna know what he spoke on, ask him at our vocation retreat... 
He! He! He!

Come! Come! Give us your name and contact to be posted on the happenings in Kampung Punggol!

The baby looks sooooo cute..... imagine him in a cassock......

SERRA Club hosted a lunch at Seoul Garden in Tampines Mall for us. 
We also celebrated the Sacerdotal Anniversary of Fr William Goh. 

Wowee !!! One week and 3 events!

Three events over a week! Boy! Are we tired!! Anyway, here are come pictures of them for your viewing pleasure.

Games and dinner with our Franciscans brothers
(30th Apr 2008)

Here is Andrew Stephens doing a spike during the volleyball game.

A rare sight! 
The Pocurator and Dean of studies (Rev Fr Kenson) serving the ball... 
and it went in !!

Solemn vespers with our Franciscan brothers.

Group photo with our Franciscan brothers.

Celebrating our Rector's 23rd Sacerdotal Anniversary during dinner. Mmm... I can still taste the chicken curry and the desserts.....