Monday, October 30, 2017

Bringing your kids to church – when is the right time?

The Church has always been strong in its advocacy of being pro-life.  When couples become serious in their plans for marriage in Church, apart from the preparations given through various courses and sessions, couples are required to sign what is known as a Marriage Pre-nuptial Enquiry.  This ensures the Church that the couple who are planning to get married are truly free to marry, and certain questions are asked of them, one of which is that they are going to welcome children in their marriage, and that they will do all they can to educate and bring up their children in the ways of Christ and his Church.

Education of a child in the ways of Christ and his Church is very broad based.  It is not just about ensuring that the child is registered and goes for his or her weekly Catechism classes after their 7th birthday or thereabouts.  “Education” encompasses that the child grows and matures in a Christ-centered environment of the family, which needs to be evidently Christian in character.  This includes, but is not limited to, things like making sure that the family makes time to pray together, participate in Church activities together, has a home altar with sacramentals like Crucifixes and holy images of saints, share and tell Bible stories together, and of course, go the Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation together.  Having these as family activities provides for the growing child a Christian environment where prayer and spirituality become the norm.  If the child is hardly ever exposed to God and the reality of God through such practices, suddenly bringing him or her to church when they start their catechism classes will be like throwing a child into the deep end of the pool on the first day of swimming lessons without first having familiarized them with the concept of floating, treading water and having their heads submerged under water first. 

Many of these Christian ‘best practices’ can be a challenge for modern day families.  There seems to be a strong force that militates against these practices, and of course, the attraction of entertainment, the load of school work and the drive for academic excellence does make it difficult to ensure that some of these are even given some chance to be practiced on an infrequent basis. 

Of those practices mentioned, the one that should never be compromised on is going to Mass on Sundays and days of obligation.  Some parents have found it very difficult to start going regularly to Mass with their children when they are of school-going age.  I have been asked by parents at what age should they begin to bring their children to Mass on Sundays.  The simple answer is – from the time they can be brought out of the home.

However, these tips may help parents to make the weekly Mass outing less challenging – both for them and the rest of the congregation.

1.   Where to be seated should take into consideration the age of the children.

When you have newborn infants, it would be best to be seated at the back of the church, near the exit doors.  This way, when they are fidgety or break into their cries of hunger, you can make a quiet exit and tend to the situation at hand, without their cries piercing the chambers of the church.  As one who stands preaching at the Ambo weekly, I can attest to the fact that it is a great challenge engaging the congregation when they are simultaneously trying to listen to the preaching above the plaintive and lung-emptying cries of a tiny infant. 

If your children are younger than 7, the place to be seated will be right in front of the sanctuary where the Altar is.  There are two reasons for this – if you are a two-foot tall person, and when everybody in front of you is standing, all you see are the backs of much taller adults.  This is not interesting at all, and you will lose attention in no time.  Children at this age need visuals – they need to see the ‘action’ up front.  Let them see the colours of the vestments used, the ornate decorations around the sanctuary area, let them ask questions about what the Tabernacle is, the sanctuary lamp, and let them be curious about the servers.  These are small moments of catechesis that the parents can give, and they will be less prone to distraction and boredom.

There are some churches which have pews in a gallery located at an upper level.  These are not the ideal places for families with young children, simply because they are physically too far from the sanctuary to pique any interest. 

2.   Bring relevant and age-appropriate books to let them follow the Mass.

There are books available for the very purpose of teaching the Mass to children.  At each part of the Mass, there are often depictions of what is happening, together with clear and simple explanations.  The Mass is so different from what they see going on in life outside of Church, making explanations necessary.  Besides, being present at the Mass makes them comfortable with the supernatural life that faith gives.

3.   Come early to Mass.

Yes, I know that preparing the entire family for Mass can be as arduous and grueling as a Spartan race.  But if this is something that you know happens each and every Sunday, then perhaps what is necessary is a concerted effort put in to rouse the family up extra early to ensure that they are ready to worship God in the right frame of mind.  Getting early to Mass settles the family down well, rather than have them scrambling for seats, and usually settling for the ones that are furthest from the front, resulting in the young ones facing a wall of the backs of people. 

4.   Your interest and participation is an education by example.

Young people learn from the visual cues that they get from their parents.  If parents are engaged in worship, singing with passion and attentive at Mass, the children will learn.  When I see young people bored and fidgety, or worse, fingering their mobile devices playing games in church, I often cast an eye at their parents seated nearby.  It doesn’t surprise me when mum and dad are not giving good examples themselves.  Some parents tend to leave Mass right after receiving Holy Communion, before the dismissal and final blessing.  This may lead to the children thinking nothing of doing the same.  Unless there is a real pressing reason, fight the temptation to flee from Mass – we can all do with the blessing that we get at the end of Mass to face the challenges the coming week.  Parents, your posture and demeanor at Mass are a form of catechesis too. 

I hope that these pointers will help parents to fulfill their role of being their childrens’ first catechists in the faith.  I can appreciate the many challenges that raising children bring, but the result of having well catechized children who are well formed in their faith is priceless. 

Monday, October 23, 2017

When one doesn't have major sins to confess, is going to Confession still necessary?

I was recently asked if I could write about how one should be making regular confessions when one doesn’t have major sins to bring up to the confessor.  Regular confession indeed does have a value that many Catholics don’t consider on a regular basis.  Like an unused treasure of immense value in one’s possession, I can see that very few Catholics are truly aware of how availing themselves to this on a regular basis can aid them in the most important task of their lives – to live sanctified and holy lives.

As a confessor, I really can understand the fact that going into the Confessional is not often seen as an exciting thing.  It’s not like as if one gets a buzz the way that going through the turnstiles of Disneyland gives a buzz to children or those who are young at heart.  Rather, because one is grappling with the reality that one hasn’t quite lived up to the high calling of a child of God, one is understandably dealing with various degrees of feelings of guilt, shame, discomfort, embarrassment and being tongue-tied in trying to articulate one’s transgressions and shortcomings.  So, the confessor-priest is fully aware of how the penitent feels.  We may not show it, but we know it, and God forgive us priests who may show impatience with penitents just because they are very regular at confessions.  As a priest, I aim to treat each penitent as someone with an inestimable value for God because I am certain that no saint is in heaven because they stayed away from this sacrament while they were living.

In a way, it is easier to confess having committed those “big-ticket” sins because they are rather ‘cut-and-dry’.  But I think the challenge comes to those who want to be regular with the celebration of this Sacrament, but find it difficult to name any of those cardinal sins which cut one’s spiritual connection with God in a serious way, the way mortal sins do.  The way we sinners struggle with the little, seemingly insignificant ones show a sincerity of heart that must delight God.

Perhaps we need to understand that this Sacrament is not only for serious sins.  This sacrament helps us to maintain a strong connection with God’s love and it gives us Sanctifying Grace.  Sanctifying Grace is the grace of God which helps us, as the word implies, to live a sanctified and holy life.  Every time a penitent ends the confession with the Act of Contrition and hears the words of Absolution given by the priest, his ability to stand ‘right’ in God’s love is renewed.  In that state, one is able to be more resolute in his task of being Christ in the ways that he lives – from being a good parent, a loving and faithful spouse, a responsible citizen who doesn’t flout rules, and living with charity and love.

Each time we fall short of living the sanctified life, we set up, as it were, layers of insulation that puts a distance between God’s love and us.  It’s not that God doesn’t want us to be close to him.  His love, as we know, is eternal.  Nothing can make God love us less, and nothing we do can make God love us more.  But when we sin, or when we fail to love (which is what sin is at its roots), it shows that we love God less than we ought.  We need to see sin and sin’s effects as these insulation layers that make it harder for us to be sensitive to God’s love.

Being regular at Confession helps us in manifold ways.  It helps us to be conscious of the small ways that we may have set up these ‘insulating’ layers in our life to keep us further, as it were, from God and his grace.  Small sins, habitual things that keep us entrenched on ourselves and the ways that we give in to our ego needs may not be huge sins in themselves, but they do add up and when left unchecked, can become the gateways to the larger and more serious ways that we end up sinning. 

Maybe an analogy may help here.  When we are in a state of grace, we are facing God and looking at him directly.  Sanctifying grace helps us to do that.  Sins cause us to lose this loving gaze that we have on God’s divine face.  Minor sins are the ways that our eyes are averted and when we look obliquely.  When the sins are a bit more grave and serious, our head is turned slightly away from God.  Major sins or what the church calls Mortal sins are those sins that cause us to not only turn our heads, but our entire bodies away from God and when we show him our backs.  We have, in effect, literally turned our backs to God. 

The Fathers of the Church have always encouraged the use of a daily examen of conscience as a daily and regular guide to check where we stand in the way that we relate with God, not unlike the way that soldiers in parade formation check their dressing by casting a glance over their left shoulder to spot the position of the soldier’s shoulder standing on right next to them.  Just as looking at their marching partner’s shoulder keeps them in line, looking at the list of the daily examen points helps to keep us in line with God’s call to a sanctified life. 

I am appending below a helpful list that any serious penitent can go through to make a daily or weekly examination of conscience.  It is not a comprehensive list, but I believe that it helps those who are keen on making confession regular to look deeper into their lives so that they can better benefit from the grace that comes with celebrating the Sacrament with better preparation.

A short Examination of Conscience
•  When was my last good Confession? Did I receive Communion or other sacraments in the state of mortal sin? Did I intentionally fail to confess some mortal sin in my previous Confession?
•  Did I seriously doubt my faith or put myself in danger of losing my faith through readings hostile to Catholic teachings or involvement in non-Catholic sects? Did I engage in superstitious practices: palm-reading, fortune telling, etc.?
•  Did I take the name of God in vain? Did I curse, or take a false oath? Did I use improper language?
•  Did I miss Mass on Sundays or holy days of obligation through my own fault, without any serious reason? Did I keep fast and abstinence on the prescribed days?
•  Did I disobey my parents and lawful superiors in important matters?
•  Did I hate or quarrel with anyone, or desire revenge? Did I refuse to forgive? Did I hurt or cause to kill someone? Did I get drunk? Did I take illicit drugs? Did I consent to, recommend, advise or actively take part in an abortion?
•  Did I wilfully look at indecent pictures or watch immoral movies? Did I read immoral books or magazines? Did I engage in impure jokes or conversations? Did I wilfully entertain impure thoughts or feelings? Did I commit impure acts, alone or with others? Did I take contraceptive or abortifacient pills or use other artificial means in order to prevent conception?
• Did I steal or damage to another’s property? How much? Have I made reparation for the damages done? Have I been honest in my business relations?
•  Did I tell lies? Did I sin by calumny, or detraction telling the unknown grave faults of others without necessity, even if they are true? Did I judge others rashly in serious matters? Have I tried to make restitution for the bad reputation I caused?
If you remember other serious sins besides those indicated here, mention them in your Confession.”

Monday, October 16, 2017

When it comes to matters of faith, seeing may not be believing.

As a pastor of souls, I am very concerned about what influences and affects the minds and hearts of the people.  After all, each one of us has our opinions and thoughts often shaped and influenced by what we are exposed to, whether passively or in a deliberate way.  Sometimes, it is what is being shown to us in a passive way that sends subliminal messages to our sub-conscious, and this easily ends up being a huge influencer of our thoughts and beliefs.

This thought occurred to me at the strangest of times – from a few moments that I paid attention to a soccer match a couple of nights ago when Liverpool was playing Manchester United in the English Premier League.  It wasn’t the match per se, though the outcome was a goalless one and rather lackluster.  Rather, it was what I saw emblazoned across the front of the jerseys that were worn by the home team of Anfield stadium.  The words were “Seeing is believing”. 

When I saw that, my inner theologian became rather disturbed, and there was a legitimate reason for this.  It is no secret that millions of dollars are earned and spent by advertisers of products at such sporting events.  This is because the viewership is immense. Singapore is half the world away from the Anfield Stadium.  Yet, we got to watch what went on, ‘live’.  This also means that millions the world over get to set their eyes on the ongoings of the match, and this includes the many advertising images that flash on the moving billboards as well as what is printed on the soccer players’ football jerseys.  I believe that lives are influenced by what is presented, even in a subliminal way.  This message that “seeing is believing” is not new.  It is also something that many atheists have brandished in the face of religion.  However, this message has a toxicity that mitigates against true belief.

In our pursuit and practice of our faith, seeing is not believing.  In fact, just on the level of language and logic, seeing doesn’t invite nor elicit belief.  If you see something, it becomes a fact.  Facts do not need belief.  For instance, witnessing a chick emerge from an incubated egg does not require one to activate any degree of belief that chickens come from eggs. 

But when it comes to matters of faith, sight does not necessarily result in belief.  100 years ago, in Fatima, Portugal, a miracle happened in front of an estimated 100,000 people.  The sun reportedly ‘danced’ in the sky, something that was promised by Our Lady to the three shepherd children she appeared to.  However, even when seeing such a miracle take place, there were still people who did not become believers. 

If faith is dependent and contingent on seeing, doesn’t necessarily go deep.  It could stop one from another necessary aspect of faith, which is to instill wonder and being in awe.  It can also stop one from developing faith, fostering it to grow, simply because one is satisfied and no longer thirsty and longing.  Did not Jesus himself say to Thomas after the resurrection, “Thomas, because you have seen me, you have believed.  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”  This must be greatly encouraging for the great majority of us simply because we are people who have not seen.

I was wondering what product was sponsoring this “Seeing is believing” slogan that was being shown to the world for 90 minutes on the chest of those Liverpool players.  I thought it would be some corporate giant with a huge budget for advertising.  I was wrong.  It turned out to be Liverpool’s support of “World Sight Day”, which was observed just 4 days before the match.  “World Sight Day” apparently raises awareness for partial blindness, which affects around 285 million people worldwide.

While I must admit that the intention to alleviate the plight of preventable blindness is indeed noble, but as a theologian and priest, I also do hold the strong opinion that seeing cannot be equated to belief.  Case in point – remember how much controversy was stirred over the social media when a dress was shown and the question asked what colour it was?  Some saw it as gold and black, while others saw it as gold and white.  Did people see it?  Yes.  Did they agree to what they saw?  Obviously not.  Seeing itself may not lead to the reality.  Apparently, now the world is going to be set into another tizzy over the colour of a pair of shoes.  Wonders never cease.

When it comes to faith, which should be the ground of our being, seeing is not believing.  We need to be clear that belief is not seeing.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Selflessness and sacrifice is the only way gun laws in America has any chance of change. And that’s why things will most likely stay the same.

Last week in Las Vegas, the world was once more horrified by another mass shooting in America, where 58 people were murdered and more than 500 left wounded, making it the deadliest mass shooting in modern US history.

As expected, it opened once again the debate of gun laws, with those who are pro-guns defending their right to own guns, and citing the fact that it is not guns that kill people but people who own guns.  America does seem to be in a quandary that simply will not be settled because as much as there exists a sizeable number of Americans who are opposed to gun ownership, there will be large numbers of Americans citing the coveted Second Amendment, which establishes the right to keep and bear arms. 

I am not an American.  I am a Singaporean who lives halfway across the globe from America, and I am sure that like me, there are many who are non-Americans and who come from countries where there are very strict gun laws and who are unable to fathom how it is that even though mindless shootings occur with such alarming regularity, causing such mayhem and carnage, that the pro-gun populace just cannot seem to soften their stand on their right to bear arms.  While I do understand that a gun left in the drawer, a safe or in a locked cabinet will certainly not cause anyone death or injury, it is undeniable that it is the fact that there are firearms within reach in the first place that makes any shooting possible. 

As I reflected on the entire issue, it became clear to me that it is not just an arms issue.  At the heart of it, it is really an issue of rights.  As long as Americans are brandishing the ‘rights’ placard in the face of their fellow Americans, there will be no change in the gun situation.  Modern America has always prided itself as the nation of the free, where citizens are protected by their rights.  It does seem then that the only way this issue needs to be broached is to have individuals to be willing to give up their own rights, for the sake of the greater good.  This doesn’t change the constitution, but it changes the way citizens live with the constitution.

The skeptic in me (or the realist, depending on how one looks at it) knows that this is never going to happen, at least not in the next few generations.  When Jesus says that he is the way, the truth and the life, he is also saying that in him is the key to the peace that he brings.  What Jesus embraced is not rights nor any semblance of entitlement either.  Paul’s letter to the Philippians pithily states that he ‘assumed the condition of a slave, and became as men are”, and that “he was humbler yet, even to accepting death, death on a cross”.  Herein is probably the only way this issue of gun ownership is going to be resolved.  It is in not clinging on to one’s rights, even though one has those rights.  In fact, it is in relinquishing one’s rights that this will find some resolution.  That Jesus “emptied himself”, and saving the world by this kenosis is key to understanding that we need to look at Jesus as our model and reason for a similar emptying of self, or rights, and to deny ourselves.  We won’t save the world when we do this, but we will definitely work towards the greater good, even if it is one gun at a time.

Selfishness is the seedbed of all that is sinful and evil, and the only antidote to selfishness has to be its antithesis, which is selflessness.  Our sinful and broken human nature will always cling tenaciously to what we want, how we want, when we want.  This is the unspoken narrative underlying the culture of rights and entitlements. 

Rules or punitive measures meted out on those who insist on their rights will not see a peaceful willingness to want the greater good for all peoples, which is a safe environment free of guns.  The only way for this to work is if there is a nation-wide freely accepted willingness to choose to not want to bear and own arms even if one has the right to.  And because this is so unfathomable, it is not a matter of whether a massacre similar to the Las Vegas one will take place.  It is only a matter of when.

The world doesn’t seem to be shocked by such stories of carnage any more.  And if you ask me, this in itself is shocking.