Thursday, 4 March 2010

Are We Asking The Right Questions?

It is coming to almost two months since our new academic year started in the seminary and quite a few things have happened these past few months. For me, it has been a time of re-adjusting back to seminary life after spending one whole year out at the Church of the Holy Spirit as part of my Regency programme.

One of the things that is new for me now that I am back in seminary is that I have just begun my theological studies. Often, in class, my brothers have been teasing me that they have been waiting for me to come back because they know that I will ask many questions in class. Although they are only joking, their teasing sometimes makes me wonder why I am known to have so many questions. I do admit that it is true that I do have many questions - I guess it stems from my desire to be clear, especially since I feel the weight of my seminary studies in terms of the teaching role I would play as a priest and also, I think it reflects my personal search for the truth. It could also well be that I am slower to grasp the subject that is being taught which can be embarrassing but I must accept that and of course my greatest fear in asking questions would be if I am holding back all my classmates or the lecturers in advancing further into the course if I had not asked those questions. I guess the issue at hand is whether the questions are pertinent and useful to the subject or are merely irresponsible and irrelevant questions. That is something I must continuously discern.

However, I would like to use this example of my own life to reflect on something deeper. I think that most of us Singaporean students prefer not to ask questions. I guess it is part of the education system we grew up in or maybe it is also just part of our Asian culture not to question because it may seem disrespectful or unnecessary. We would certainly prefer it if all the answers were just given to us on a golden platter. I guess this holds true at every level of our education and it is no wonder then that the ten year series books with worked solutions are always so popular for our major exams as we all want the worked out solutions. This could also be true for us when it comes to the bigger questions of life.

Let me sidetrack for a while by sharing with all of you a question that has been on my mind recently. In the Singaporean Catholic community, we have been praying for vocations for some years now and although we are seeing some change in the tide of vocations, I do not think that we have seen a dramatic change. Maybe it is still early and we are still at the stage of ploughing the fields so that the Lord can plant the seeds of vocation and we can look forward to the great harvest but I wonder if there are also other possibilities. In recent times, I have also been quite amused with the fact that I have met and heard of good and balanced men who begin on a search to discern whether they are called to the priestly vocation only to discover that they are not being called. I salute these men for their honesty and courage. But in recent times, I confess that I have been wrestling with God about why many of the men who are serious about discerning are not being called by Him. With so many people praying, it surely cannot be that the Lord has not heard our prayer. My wrestling with God is not that He is not calling people because I strongly believe that He is; my wrestling with Him is on why He seems to be bestowing the Call on all those who are probably not seriously discerning instead of those who seem to have. That is, I think what my question is at the moment. Part of the answer I get when I reflect on this is that God also wants us to reach out to the men who are still not yet discerning but have been called. This is a real challenge and I guess it is something we have to persevere in doing.

Recently, our Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, was reflecting on St. Bonaventure and he noted how when St Bonaventure had finished the equivalent of secondary school, he experienced the questions that so many young people ask: "John [later Bonaventure] asked himself a crucial question: 'What must I do with my life?'" This led Bonaventure to join the Franciscans and became one of the most important theologians in the history of the Church.

I guess this is what the crux of my reflection is. I think that one possible reason why we are not having vocations, and more importantly, why so many of us seem to be living mediocre lives is because we are not courageous enough in asking the right questions about our lives. I guess the classroom is just a brief reflection of our greater fear of asking questions. I do not think that I myself have been very courageous in this area. I think that often, it is not so much that we fear asking the question, although it can be embarrassing at times, but it is the answer that we fear. The answer could and normally does demand more than we can give or it could turn our whole worldview upside down and challenge us at the core of our being – whatever it is, the answer changes us in many ways and so, in reality, the question also changes us. Asking questions requires an element of vulnerability and trust. We have to trust that there is an answer that makes the question worth asking and that when we ask, we will be supported and not ridiculed. I guess this is where we are trying to do all we can to give a supporting and safe environment where our young Singaporeans can be courageous enough to ask the right questions. Maybe, they too will be courageous in asking with St Bonaventure, “What must I do with my life?” and so hear the voice of Christ. After all, the first words of Jesus in St John’s Gospel is a question - “What are you looking for?” (Jn 1:38)

And maybe, the courage that we show in asking the right questions in life would then inspire others to also ask the right questions and so begin living a radically meaningful life. Thus, we shall become salt and light of the world! Let us be courageous in asking the right questions!

Lent Seasoning

When we use the word "season" for Lent, we are usually referring to the period of fourty days of preparation before Easter. But the word "season" also bears another meaning, which the dictionary defines as "to improve and enhance the flavour of food"

I remember when I was young, there was this Maggi Seasoning in its uniquely shaped bottle, that I would add to my half boiled eggs to enhance the taste and flavour. This same seasoning was used by my mum to marinate everthing from chicken and pork to stir-fried vegetables.

It is this image of seasoning and marinating that I find relevant to the season of Lent. When we season a piece of meat before cooking, we usually cover the meat with the seasoning, making sure that it is completely covered, sometimes even rubbing or massaging so that the seasoning will go into the meat. Often we would leave the meat to soak in the seasoning to allow the flavour to soak all the way through.

Similarly when we look at our "Lenten Seasoning", we are given forty days to be "marinated" by the various Lenten Practices that we are undertaking. First what are we seasoning ourselves with? There are the 3 practices of Fasting, Almsgiving and Prayer that the Church recommends as the best seasoning. Because they help us look at 3 areas in our lives. Fasting looks at our lives and what are the things that we have allowed to take control of our lives, not just food, but other distractions or addictions. Almsgiving makes us look at others, not just about giving money, but giving our time, energy and love. And prayer of course makes us turn back to God.

Meat that is seasoned properly makes it tender, enhances the taste, and it is not just on the surface that it can be washed away. So too our Lenten Seasoning, has to be something that transforms us internally. The effects of our fasting cannot be that we lose weight, but are we tempering our desires and feelings. Our almsgiving cannot result just in a lighter wallet, but are we more aware of the needs of others and growing in our relationships. And our prayer has to result in an increase in our relationship and love of God. Though we will stop our lenten practices at Easter, the effects of a properly "seasoned" person will continue in the lives we lead.

So let us pray that our Lenten Seasoning this year may not just be "garnishing" that is put on externally and just looks nice, but that it will truly transform us within to be tastier, tender and holier when we celebrate the gift of New Life at Easter.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

Open House Report 2010

Last Sunday, the seminary has it first Open House for 2010. We had groups from various churches here to visit our humble abode. This time, about 70-80% of the visitors are teenagers. In the presentation about the seminary, we decided to screen a video to show nature of the priesthood.

In this video, we are told that the priesthood is counter cultural, where men give up their lives to remain celibate and serve the people of God. Bro Jude reiterated this when he said that we have decided to not get married, not have children and not have a family. We will embrace the people of God as our family.

Though not many dare to raise their hands when we asked them if they have any inclination to the priesthood or religious life, we do hope that in some way, we did open their minds to this way of life and in the future, when they are considering their paths in life, dedicating their lives to God in a religious community or at the altar will be one of their choices.

In any case, do look out for our next Open House in October. Remember to register through your parish offices.