Able and available

Each year on Vocation Sunday, and during novena prayers, we invoke the prayer for vocations. We ask God to touch the hearts and minds of young people to respond to the call of vocation to the priesthood or religious life.

Aug 25, 2023

I remember a speech delivered by Fr Michael Chua at the Third Peninsular Malaysia Pastoral Convention III (PMPC III) in 2006 at the Federal Hotel, Kuala Lumpur. In his speech, after three days of dialogue participated by 515 people comprising clergy, religious and laity, he summed up by asking the participants if anyone would step forward to volunteer to take up any of the items on the wish-list they had prepared to see the Catholic Church do. Silence. He then said, “The Church needs not just people who are able, but also people who are available.”

Today, 17 years on, at the many parish synodal processes and at the many parish pastoral assemblies (PPAs), the number of wish-lists has not reduced. Perhaps today, in the context of the digital age and social media communication, the issues are amplified. More people are aware and more are putting forward their requirements for the Church.

At the heart of all these remains the same issue — who will be tasked, or willing, to carry out or implement any of these actions? Fr Michael’s words remain true today. The Church needs people who are able and available to volunteer to serve and to commit to its fulfilment. What more, as Church, we are asked to serve with love, care and compassion.

Looking at the current realities, there are an estimated 1.17 million Catholics in Malaysia, according to UCANews estimates. According to the pre-COVID-19 pandemic Catholic Directory and Ordo 2019, the estimated total number of Catholic clergy in Malaysia stood at 323 and total number of religious at 585 for the three archdioceses and six dioceses in Malaysia. Given that many changes occurred in the past four years — those who are deceased, retired or newly ordained — we can loosely say the ratio of clergy to laity is 1: 3,441. In simple terms, it means one priest serves 3,440 Catholics in Malaysia. This would be the corporate world equivalent of a CEO managing a mid to large corporation spread geographically. It is no surprise our Holy Father Pope Francis in his speech in Latin America last year said “Seminaries don’t form supermen” (HERALD, Nov 20, 2022).

In the Gospel of Matthew 9:37-38, Jesus said to His disciples, “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore, pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest”. The same is said today, except that we cannot simply pray and hope that God will send down workers from Heaven. It is not as if the bishops have a closet full of priests whom they can despatch whenever required to do so.

Each year on Vocation Sunday, and during novena prayers, we invoke the prayer for vocations. We ask God to touch the hearts and minds of young people to respond to the call of vocation to the priesthood or religious life. In my younger days, when I was part of Fr Joseph Fung SJ’s vocation promotions team, we created catchy music, lyrics and flyers distributed to all the churches, aimed at attracting the young people to consider the vocations to priesthood and religious life. I also remember telling my then parish priest, the late Fr John Hsiong, that it is time we do away with prayers and start distributing application forms to join the vocations to the priesthood or religious life.

Is this really the solution? Hoping that God miraculously increase the number of clergy and religious to His harvest on earth? In my opinion, No.

Let’s re-look another current reality. The Church in Malaysia already has many able and available people serving at various levels of the Church — in small groups or basic ecclesial communities, parish ministries, and even at diocese levels. These dedicated Catholics — volunteers, elected or appointed — are our real unsung heroes, serving with no fanfare or rewards. They are our catechists, our extraordinary ministers of the Eucharist, the hospitality ministers, the liturgical groups (choir, lectors, altar servers), those serving in the ministry of the poor, the sick, in prison, the homebound, and many more.

Coming back to Fr Michael Chua’s message, “the Church needs people who are able and available”. The Church does have a large pool of talented, skilled and experienced people, and they are mostly sitting in the church pews every Sunday. The many talents and skills in our churches contribute towards our diverse congregation. Whenever the church has one-off projects — church building projects, Lenten campaign, family day event, fund-raising, etc. — we are never short of volunteers.

However, the Church as a large structured organisation, experiences the same “pains” like most large corporations. It has its protocols, bureaucracy, rules and regulations to comply with. It has positions to fill, meetings to attend and documentations to complete. All these require people who are available to give their time. People who are able (the first category) aren’t usually the type who have spare time to give pro-bono and long-term services. This is where the Church turns to people who have time availability (the second category) — the retirees, students, homemakers, those in-between jobs, self-employed, etc.

Hence, the gap exists. People who are able do not have time to give long-term, hold positions and attend numerous church meetings regularly. People who are available, are glad to hold positions and attend meetings but lack the experience, skills and knowledge to plan and execute in accordance to expectations.

Today’s consumer world treats the Church as a provider, while the congregation are its customers. Customers need to be satisfied and need to feel they are given quality services.

Perhaps if everyone takes responsibility for a small-bite of the task at hand, collectively the many issues may reduce, if not be resolved. In the process of doing so, the spirit of community, spirituality and love will grow, and the Church will be more vibrant..

Richard Chia has been actively involved in Church since young. He held full-time corporate jobs while serving in ministries and groups at various church levels for the past four decades.

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