Fr. Philip Lai CSsR speaking to members of Bedok South NCC at a breakout session during the Bedok South NCC Mass.
What’s unique about a Parish Mission?
The Parish Mission is the only activity of the Church that involves the whole parish for renewal. Every parish will definitely have their own renewal programmes but, even with all the good intentions of the parish and the zeal of the priests, you don’t touch many people.
You organise something for families, only the family people might come. You organise something for the youth, only the young people will be there. Maybe you organise something for different ministries of the church, again, you might touch only 10 per cent -- if you are lucky, you’ll touch 10 per cent.
So in the wisdom of the Church over the centuries, they have the idea that we need to have a structure to renew the whole church where everybody is involved. The only one that is viable is the Parish Mission because you touch everybody -- people in ministry, people in different renewal programmes, people in different prayer groups, it will cover everybody.
Ideally speaking, every parish should have a Parish Mission every 10 years but, in reality, it does not happen... because it is a lot of work.
Since the Parish Mission involves the whole parish, one of the means is to visit the families so you are really touching the grassroots of the people.
With all the best intentions, we see people only in Church. We don’t see them in the house. And that is a disadvantage because if you don’t see them where they live, you don’t really know where they come from -- the whole environment of how our Catholics live their lives.
Whoever visits the homes, in all honesty, we benefit more from visiting the family than what the family thinks they benefit from us. It helps the parish priest understand where the people come from. It also helps us as priests and religious.
Let’s say I am going to preach a homily, what are the things that people are concerned with? Am I speaking above the heads of the people, (about) something that people are not interested in? Is it something that relates to their lives? And I can only know this if I go down to the grassroots.
So the Parish Mission is not benefiting just the parishioners, it also benefits the clergy on how to organise its parish in a more effective way.
What do you look out for when you visit a family?
I see the interaction of the family. It’s not a question of passing judgement -- it’s a learning process to see how difficult it is in modern times to live a healthy family life with all the challenges.
You have to be very sharp in your perception. Some families, the children are not even there. They give the excuse that they are studying… it says something. You see how husband and wife interact with one another… see how relaxed they are, how close they are or how distant they are… even in that half an hour.
Again, it’s not saying this family is no good. I learn more about how people have to deal with challenges that maybe as a priest I don’t. It’s perceiving where our Singaporean challenges are, so that it helps us in our preaching. (So we are) not so judgemental, not so demanding, not so out of touch.
At the same time, we are also edified by many, many families. Especially families with handicapped children, families with elderly parents, and how they struggle and yet somehow they have that joy, joke and laugh with one another despite the challenges.
Some old couples, they are so loving and so caring… and there are some young couples, already they are struggling.
It is a visit to deepen our understanding of the people that come to our church so in our sharing, in our teaching, we won’t be up here and not relate to people.
Half an hour is a very short time, so we must use it well. Personally, whenever I visit a home, I will make an effort to remember them by name. Knowing people by name is very important... That is the way you establish a relationship.
How can we keep the community motivated?
The mentality for many of us, we tend to (want to) be spoon-fed all the time. We don’t take the initiative. The question is: What am I going to do after the Mission -- not what is the parish going to do after the Mission -- in my family, in my personal life, and in my neighbourhood.
What is important is our contribution. (It may be) very limited, but the result is in the hand of God… It might take a long time, but it’s God’s time. So we do our best and leave it in the hands of God.
A family may, after the Mission, go back to the same old ways, that is okay. Maybe somewhere down the road, something may happen, then that may trigger off something. But that is in God’s time. God works in mysterious ways and sometimes in very insignificant ways.
Don’t look for statistics. Don’t look for results.
If we can get even a quarter of the 400 volunteers very fired up, they can do quite a bit.
Same like marriage, honeymoon can only be a limited number of years. You cannot be on honeymoon for the rest of your life, so then you have to create some sort of honeymoon in between to revive things.
The effort is very much on parish and parishioners together. You don’t get 1,414 (households) fired up, but whatever percentage (you get), you start with it. In fact, any change in the world starts with a very small group, sometimes only a couple of people.
For example, Microsoft was started with just two people, and look what wonders they can do.
So don’t underestimate even if you have 100 people. I’m not saying it’s going to be all success all through. Anybody who wants to start something must be prepared for failure. The only thing that cannot die is the conviction. Try again, try again…
Do you think we can bring back the spirit and fervor of the old parish community from the 1970s?
One of the problems with human beings is we tend to compare to the past, the good old days. The good old days will never come back. The good old days have done their part and now the challenge is for each and every one of us…to create in this present age a “good old days” for our children and grandchildren.
And that is difficult. It’s still the “good old days” but in years to come. It’s up to us to make this become a “good old days” for my children and grandchildren. That should be the vision.
Because the “good old days” always looks at something we are lacking now. And negativity is never healthy to move forward, but rather the vision and the conviction that something can be done one day at a time.
How to make today a “good old days” for tomorrow? And if we have done our best, hopefully the result will become a “good old days”. It’s the effort that you put in and the conviction, and that conviction will come from your belief in God.