Monday, January 18, 2010

Balancing the community experience with a personal God-experience in Church

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.


  1. For me 'Church' is a "Place of Love and Truth".I can visualise her disappointment when her friend was rejected,and I admire her courage for coming up to you.And that shows her true love for her friend as she wanted to share Jesus with her friend.May God Bless you in your priestly work Fr Luke.

  2. don't worry, fr luke, in time people will understand the unique way you do your work. (:

    miss you! do try to come celebrate mass for sow one day, pleaseeee? :D rebecca and i are in the programme! (and loving it XD)


  3. I'm afraid you're right that "putting up notices on dress code & preachiing homilies.."will be of no avail - for a "man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still". The heart of the problem lies in the heart - can one become small enough to obey certain rules set up for the common good or will one exempt oneself because one always have valid reasons to waive these aside ? Sometimes what is called for is simple obedience - it may be simple but not easy. I've often mused over & marveled at Fr Barthoulot's take on obedience( reflections on Golden anniversary of his ordination ) - "to obey, it is not enough to do what obedience commands. It is necessary to do it without reasoning about it. Be convinced that whatever is commanded is the best thing that can be done. We are naturally inclined to command and often unwilling to obey. Yet it is certain that to obey is more advantageous than to command.."

  4. Dear Father

    I do empathise with you and the wardens, and i hope that it is only a handful that you have to handle with sensitivity. You're right about worshippers who adhere to proper dress codes being the norm in many parts of the world. Even in Dubai, during the sweltering summers, the Indian Christian community would gather for mass properly attired – men in shirt and pants; ladies in long skirts or saris (I never paid attention to the shoes). My point is that we will come out with an excuse like the weather to justify our actions. I wonder what if you told them that they would get $XX every time they came to Church early or participated during mass; or fined $XX each time their phone rings during mass….i believe things will change but sadly for all the wrong reasons. If we really examine ourselves, many a time our “what is it in for me?” attitude and affluence had led us to do whatever we WANT rather than what is RIGHT – from naming our children to being kind & considerate to our neighbour.
    Father, you may someday even get abused for your kind intentions… don’t lose heart. My prayers goes out to you and the wardens.

    Have a blessed week ahead!

  5. In the past, when I did not fully appreciate what being at Mass means, I thought the dress codes were 'stupid'. By God's grace, I now have a better appreciation of the Mass.

    The words we use, 'attending Mass' or 'be at Mass', fail to fully express the reality and the privilege that we are coming into the presence of our God who has condescended to come to be physically with us, not just 2000 years ago, but again and again at every Mass (still condescending to be 'insulted' by people who come sloppily dressed or carrying on a conversastion during mass).

    Some people are genuinely (and validly) ignorant of what is the Mass. Few non-Catholics when invited to come to a church would come sloppily dressed.

    A dress code, to me, implies that we are attending an event. Useful as a guide but useless to bring me to an appreciation of the holiness and significance of the occasion.

    I've noticed some of our Indian parishioners (and also an Indian priest) who take off their footwear as they know in holy presence.

    May more Catholics be blessed with a greater appreciation of who is awaiting them at Mass.

    May our priests and wardens be able to use love to uphold the 'dress code', for it is a tough call to make without love.

    God bless you, and the wardens!

  6. If one will given an invitation to meet the Prime Minister, surely this person will take time to dress up to the nines. What if God was one of us? Will we not also dress up to the nines to see Him as well? Incidentially, it's just like if we truly believe Jesus is in the tabernacle, humbly we should knee all the way into church and not walk in without the least respect to our God. Lastly, cleanliness (proper dressing) is next to Godliness even though beauty is in the eyes of the beholder. Those who go to church in shorts, thongs etc... well, well, I really do not how to address them? God bless

  7. Hi Fr Luke,

    It will be tough implementing the Dress Code unless all Catholic churches in S'pore unanimously adopt the same 'firm' approach. Besides putting up notices & posters, perhaps screening video clips occasionally before Mass in all local churches to educate the congregation may be helpful. Wardens need special training to handle 'sticky' situations with much love, diplomacy, sensitivity & patience as you so aptly mentioned so that they may not appear to be overbearing & haughty "ministers of law enforcement". Fr Bathoulot once said that "the effort we make to dress respectfully for Mass is itself an act of worshipping God". How profound! God bless you, Fr Luke. Maria

  8. Dear Father Luke,

    This is the first time I'm reading your blog and I've found this entry to be refreshing.

    I come from a different church background and joined the catholic chuch several years ago.The church that I came from had " wider boundaries". For instance, while it drew the line on skimpy dressing, slippers were fine. This was evidenced by the many youths dancing happily during praise and worship, clad in their slippers.

    Coming from this background, it was not surprising then that my initial impressions of the catholic chuch was that she was stifling and distant with all her " rules and regulations". I felt that many things, all the way from her rituals to the dressing of the priests, made the church seem irrelevant to the man (or woman) on the streets.

    In my journey to becoming a catholic (thanks to God, who sent many patient catholic friends and fathers, as well as the wonderful catholic books!) , I started to gain an understanding of the purposes of the church's practices, and have come to have a better appreciation of their role in our worship of God.

    Yet, at the back of my mind, I have wondered on several occasions, would the church stop someone who's not a catholic from being with us in mass, if he/she was not dressed appropriately? And so, I was rather captivated when your blog discussed this very issue. I am thankful that the woman visitor wasn't stopped from celebrating mass. I am thankful that the person, the importance of this one soul meeting God, was put before the rules and regulations, necessary as they are. Thanks for sharing.

  9. Hi there,
    Hypothetical situation: I am a "free-thinker" and somehow I have this notion that Jesus IS the way - but I have absolutely NO clue as to which Christian church I should belong. So I go each Sunday to a different church in an effort to see for myself what the churches/parishoners are like. I've gotta say, I don't think I would be so impressed by the attitude/disposition of many of our Catholic brothers and sisters at Holy Mass. I might well end up in one of the newer evangelical churches. Get this; The Mass is the Highest form of worship to God there is. Many times have people said to me, "It doesn't matter how you dress, IT'S WHAT'S IN YOUR HEART THAT MATTERS." Well.. my response to that is, "THE WAY YOU DRESS AND BEHAVE SHOWS JUST WHERE YOUR HEART LIES."
    God Love You.

  10. Hi Fr Luke,

    I second your view on what is required of the frontline wardens, and that is to be mindful that they are to interact with the parishioners with sensitivity, and not to put on a behaviour that comes across as high-handed law enforcers. Sadly, I witnessed one middle-aged man being told by one warden that he cannot enter because he was in bermudas and not LONG pants even though he came across to me as decently dressed as he was in covered shoes. I was there when I overheard the conversation and saw the poor uncle turned and walked away even though he was already at the doorstep of the House of God that morning. So where should the church draw the line? I do agree with Maria above that unless the Catholic Churches in Singapore agree among themselves to be consistent and unanimous in their treatment of 'dress code', this knotty and thorny issue will continue to remain.
    Nonetheless, you did well to have asked the lady with her (presumably non-christian) friend to proceed for mass as I cannot imagine what sort of impression her non-christian friend would have walked away with, of the Catholic church,otherwise.

    And what is it with open toes slippers, anyway, are they to be viewed as 'disrespectful'? I recall seeing the Franciscan friars wearing open toes slippers/sandals (granted they look more expensive to be labelled as 'sandals' perhaps) to celebrate mass at St Mary of the Angels church when I attended a wedding mass there sometime back. Perhaps it is time the Church takes a harder look at this issue of what is deemed appropriate/inappropriate dress code to attend/celebrate mass, even among the religious to stem out all these controversy and inconsistency in pastoral administration in different catholic churches. God bless us all.


  11. Thanks Pam for your comments. I can see that for many people, it is far more important to ‘draw lines’, as it is easier to administer and control. But instead of asking ‘what is wrong with open toe sandals or slippers’, I think what is far more important is ‘where is our heart when we are worshipping?’ Franciscans are mendicants and the are discalced, anyway, so that is their lifestyle and their ‘habit’, so taking them as the standard to be followed, or bringing them into the discussion clouds the issue. Certainly, Francis had his whole heart given to God, and it was expressed externally by his habit of rags.

    Perhaps the question one needs to ask oneself is whether one would wear the same kind of footwear to meet the President or the Prime Minister. If in one’s heart, that is deemed appropriate footwear, then I believe that for him, it would be appropriate for Mass, where one meets not the President, not the Prime Minister, but God himself. But, if one has double standards, where one gives the head of state one standard, but God another, the heart seems ‘misplaced’, don’t you think? That is what we are trying to establish here. Are we giving God our best, because every one of us seems to want the best from God. Are there two standards in existence here?

    Yours in Christ
    Fr Luke