It is a necessary but difficult task of a priest to strike a sensible balance between doing what is right, and being pastorally sensitive enough to meet the laity at their level of need and receptivity.
Just yesterday, I encountered such a ‘sticky’ situations which is probably best understood if I were to first relate the situation as it unfolded.
Before we started the entrance procession, marking the start of the Eucharistic celebration yesterday, I was approached by a lady who was almost in tears asking why her friend (not a Catholic) was prevented from going into the Church with her simply because his feet were in slippers. In her frustration, I could sense that she was feeling terribly upset at having the doors of the Church literally closed to her friend, who in all likelihood, represents those who want to come to know Christ.
In our Church, we have been putting up posters and notices, informing visitors that certain forms of attire are inappropriate for this house of worship, and amongst these are short shorts, tank tops, spaghetti straps and strapless tops for ladies, and slippers or thongs. Behind all this is the intention of giving the respect that this house of God deserves. This kind of stipulation, whilst not unheard of in places of worship, seems to be for many Catholics, rather strange and even unnecessary. Yet, if we just take a look at the other places of worship in the other religions not just in Singapore but elsewhere around the world, it seems to be the norm.
I am full of respect for our Wardens who are at the front line of the ire of many Catholics who are the ones who are tasked to help the parishioners to adhere to the dress codes. Many a time, they get dirty looks and raised voices, and they realize that theirs is indeed a thankless task. As with many issues of the church, the angle from which one looks at the issues become the bone of contention. Each has its rationale, and it becomes very difficult to reach an objective solution simply because this is not just a dress code issue, but a human and social issue.
Compliance to dress code issues are easily solved if one were to remove God from the issue. After all, just take a look at places like fine dining restaurants, clubs and government agencies. When it is just a social issue, there is general tendency to follow (usually with much less difficulty and disgruntlement) the rules of the establishment. But in the local context, when the issue and venue has God as its central raison d’etre, it can become a thorny and knotty issue.
I suspect that that this is because we tend to think that how we view God, how we relate with him is something that seems very personal, involving just my views, my feelings, my freedom and my convenience, way before I expand my world to include the views, feelings, freedom and convenience of others in my community. How I worship and how I dress, how I bow and kneel, how I respond (or choose to remain silent and not sing hymns) becomes far more important than the contribution that I am making (or fail to make) in the praying life of the gathered community. I was reading an article in yesterday’s paper about how one journalist wrote about how he has learnt to love others on his own terms, as if it was a good thing. I recall distinctively that my heart skipped a beat when I read that. It is precisely this kind of love – on our own terms – that gives the world many of the problems that we are facing.
What then is the most sublime definition of love? St Thomas Aquinas defined love so succinctly when he said that love is willing the good of the other. If our definitions of love are very different from that, where there is more “I” and “me”, instead of “you” and “others”, it has a trickle down effect to all the other areas of our lives, which include our work attitude, the way we relate with our friends and colleagues, and yes, even the way that we turn up at Mass, dress for Mass, respond at Mass and care for one another at Mass.
This is at the heart of the ‘pastoral balance’ that I began this morning’s blog with. At the back of my head lies this need to help my parishioners and friends to come to appreciate this truth. At the same time, I must be fully aware that each person comes with a whole lifetime of experiences and life challenges that have shaped the way that they have come to see God and affected thus their result of placing the “I” in a far more important place than the “other”.
The problem remains though. Is putting up notices on Dress Code going to change things if the fundamental issue of the heart not first addressed? How do we address this? I am not of the opinion that preaching such things at homilies are platforms where heart issues are readily handled and accepted. It takes far more than that.
What is required of our front-line Wardens? Probably this – the patience, love and willingness to deal with each person with the kind of sensitivity and patience that each requires and deserves. Is this difficult? Immensely. Is this necessary? Undoubtedly if we really see ourselves as ministers of love, and not law enforcement.
In case you are wondering, I asked the lady to enter the church with her friend, incurring the ire of the Warden for I seemed to have ‘double standards’. Will the lady and her friend from now see something good in what we are trying to achieve as church?
I guess, only time will tell.