A glimpse of tomorrow

The world outside is fast falling, changing with the advent of a digital currency, a one system for all, religious extremism and a watered-down faith-life.

Sep 15, 2023

Nevertheless, when the Son of Man comes, will He find that faith on earth?” – Luke 18:8

It was 5.45pm in this affluent town ‘by the river’, and the Saturday sunset Mass was scheduled to take place at 6.00pm. We arrived at 5.15pm, thinking we would have time to pray the Rosary. Who knows, maybe we could even possibly pray the Saturday Novena, a somewhat forgotten devotion in so many churches. With no one in sight and piles of dried leaves left near the main entrance, we thought “no way will there be Mass celebrated here today.” We walked around the church thrice; it was getting to be quite disappointing. Where’s the choir, we thought…they would need to set up at least an hour before Mass? The cold chill wind outside was pressing us to leave. It was, after all, getting dark and our walk back would take 15-freezing-coldminutes (which would seem like three hours). However, I wasn’t about to give up. Despite the doors being shut tight, I spotted the sanctuary lamp through one of the glass windows. “The Blessed Sacrament is there…this can’t possibly be an abandoned church.” And so we waited.

At 5.50pm, the friendliest face emerged — the fairly young parish priest himself. He smiled and said, “Sorry to keep you guys waiting outside, come on in…” He stayed to chat for a couple of minutes, asking us where we were visiting from. He quickly shared that he had left India many years ago and had come to this first-world country to serve…however, this was a small congregation and there were probably only two ‘native’ priests in this entire diocese. At that point, we thought we would be the only two people attending Mass, until another lady came through the side door…she hurried along, opening the main doors and we made our way to the front oak pews.

Within just a few minutes, perhaps another 35 parishioners walked through the door, and Mass started. The entrance hymn Praise to the Lord, the Almighty sprang suddenly — through a compact disc…though beautiful and resounding. The Gospel reading told the story of Peter remonstrating with the Lord, and the priest gave a truly powerful and heartfelt message from the front pew about how we can sometimes be ‘weak’ like Peter was in the Gospel…how we often see things from a weaker human point of view, and not from God’s. The world today is a classic example, pivoting to a weakened response to faith in many corners of the world.

Alas, where were the altar servers? The choir members? The extraordinary ministers of communion? There were none. There were no magnificent flowers on the altar as we were used to back home. By contrast, Malaysian churches are full and so many work to make the celebration of thanksgiving materialise like clockwork. No sacristan assisted this priest, he prepared everything himself. We immediately realised that the lady who was commentating was also the first and second reader, the psalmist and possibly the person who ran to press ‘play’ to manage the music.

When it was time to leave, we stayed for a while and enquired about the community here. What we learnt pierced through our hearts. “Father, you must be visiting hospitals here often?” — well, whenever I am called to visit… but it doesn’t happen often…there is not much trust here…

“Why Father?” — there’s a deep sense of hurt here…deep scarring…people cannot forget that 40 years ago, the priest who built this church had an “issue” with young boys…

He continued… I’ve been here for five years…if it was bad then, it’s worse now…nobody’s come back after COVID-19…I hardly get invited to their homes and as hard as I try, I just can’t fix certain things”.

We tried to make sense of it: “Yes, Father, everyone’s gone online…” — oh, is that so? he said, unconvinced. COVID-19 was just an excuse not to come back, not to serve, not to bring children to learn about their faith and to know Jesus…it was an excuse to no longer be associated with the Catholic Church.

The Mass was so meaningful. The priest knew the Eucharistic prayers by memory. There were no frills. He didn’t care about his next meal, or his next trip home (he hasn’t been home in all these years). He clearly lived alone amidst a stream of new churches of other denominations which have sprouted, each supposedly bearing the ‘real’ mission of faith. His mission was clearly to rebuild this church, to regain the trust of the community, and to save these souls. What made it more compelling was that this priest had to travel to another rural area to serve that small community for Sunday Mass and rush back to his fledging community here by the river.

When we said goodbye after carrying out our standard Malaysian ‘wefie’ ritual to which he so graciously obliged, it was a 15-minute walk back that was filled with a myriad of emotions — we were in awe at God’s blessings to grant us the gift of the Holy Eucharist when there was so little faith around us…we were immensely grateful to have met such a kind and warm person of Christ who welcomed us wholeheartedly. Amidst his rejection here, he so wanted to welcome us and be a friend, even amidst the disappointments. We were on holiday too but felt a deep sense of despair and desperation — it was as if we were served a glimpse of how the world could be when Jesus returned. Would Malaysia ever suffer this fate? Would we one day decide that there’s so much going wrong about our church that we think it’s just better to stay home? With all the hype about the upcoming synod will we too run into despair and confusion? Would we find ourselves saying yes when our baptised children, having been confirmed in their faith, go on to marry outside the Church and then offer to take us to their church? Some would even think ‘so long they attend a church!’ Would we see our grandchildren embrace another religion (or to be atheist) because they didn’t know how to say “no” nor fight to remain true to the Catholic faith, embattled by a world going wrong?

…meanwhile, it was indeed a long walk home…it wasn’t the cold at all that made it seem like a long journey. I was contemplating how we would all eventually answer to what has become of the world when He comes again… “I’m sorry, Lord, I tried but being Catholic was too difficult”; “The children found their own path and made their own decision about ‘You’ and about their life…”; “We carried out our duty as parents and sent them for catechism, but we also wanted our Sundays so we didn’t attend Mass”; “We didn’t like the priest and his sermons so we thought why bother?” What in the world would we say to account for a faithless world? Or will He find faith, because we will take His Name upon ourselves and live His Divine principles… we will give up sloth, gluttony, pride and greed…all our ‘riches’…and follow Him? This may sound like a tall order, but there is only the narrow door to enter through. The world outside is fast falling, changing with the advent of a digital currency, a one system for all, religious extremism and a watered-down faith-life. These are the realities of today, these are also the glimpses of our tomorrow. What’s your glimpse of tomorrow?

(Professor Joanne Lim shares the faith in Catechism and music in Church. She is Deputy Dean and lectures on media and society at the University of Nottingham Malaysia.)

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