As long as we’re in the fire, we keep burning

In conjunction with the recently concluded golden jubilee celebration of the Malacca Johore Diocese, HERALD caught up with Bishop Bernard Paul for a quick chat. The interview is featured here.

Dec 24, 2022

Bishop Bernard Paul and the laity participate in the Seven Sacrament Pilgrim Walk. (photo/ Clement Josos)

HERALD: What are your thoughts on the various activities arranged over the yearlong celebration of the diocese’s golden jubilee?
Celebration at the diocese level began in early 2020 on St Paul’s Hill, Melaka with Mass and launching of the MJD50 logo. The activities were geared towards awakening parishes; moving people to connect with history and stories, to mobilise the flock to have a sense of communion.

 The organising team aimed to visit parishes in the diocese to help set the jubilee spirit alight among the faithful. However, COVID-19 hit and everything was delayed. We ended up only having one year to prepare the community.

After the day-long grand celebration on Dec 3, 2022 at the Majodi centre, churches and chapels in the diocese were encouraged to carry out parish-level celebrations on Dec 18, the date the diocese was formed in 1972, as a closing to the jubilee fete.

Was the purpose achieved?
From the large turnout, the response and participation, the diversity of people, the four language groups coming together, the different spiritual centres, seeing to the aged’s needs and the widest involvement of priest, parish leaders and communities from all over the diocese shows the purpose was achieved.

Meeting and interacting with people from the different language groups and listening to them share their appreciation of the 50-year celebration was another positive outcome. It gave them an opportunity to fellowships, communicate with other People of God. Some groups even turned it into a three-day pilgrimage by including visits to other churches in the diocese along the way.

Were there any shortfalls?
In the beginning there was a lot of scepticism. Some of the comments included “People won’t come … COVID-19 … bad weather… Just end with a Mass.”

Some parishes and many religious congregations did not participate fully and there wasn’t even a simple display of their journey in the diocese. There were pockets of parishes who didn’t take ownership of the diocese. We also lacked any promotion for vocations.

It’s a bit of a disappointment and I will bring it up with the Associate of Religious, when we meet next. They may regret not participating.

Malacca was once the first diocese in the county. The Catholic faith trickled into the southern states more than 500 years ago – where do you think the congregation is today, in their faith level?
It is hard to measure faith as it is more than going to church. Being involved in church activities and attendance at Mass can be measured, but other than that, it’s not possible to gauge.

People’s motivation to serve can be questioned – are they doing it for pride, for money, for control, or because they are the priest’s crony?

When I see people claiming to be church leaders but who are power crazy or racist, it makes me apprehensive. How can you have this kind of spirit?

I ask my clergy the same questions. Why did you become a priest? When you chose this vocation, you had a dream, why did that dream die?

You must hold on to your first call. That’s what colours your pursuit.

As a shepherd, it’s not easy managing the flock and the clergy.

In general, there is also low volunteerism across the diocese. We face weak response for participation in social missionary work like Caritas and Parish Office for Human Development (POHD), Natural disaster response.

The sense of community is also pretty weak. There seems to be small groups that are community minded; but many want Jesus but not the community.

The Church and the Sunday liturgy are a fireplace.

As long as we are in the fire, we keep burning. If our fire burns out, other people’s faith ignites us and that is why community gatherings are important.

The minute you leave the fire, you die out. You have to return to reignite.

I understand the Seven Sacrament Pilgrim Walk was your brainchild. Please share your vision behind the concept and what you hope the clergy/religious and faithful will achieve/benefit from this.
The seven Sacraments are part and parcel of our Catholic faith. So, the seven Sacraments are basically going back to one’s Call and Mission.

Every Sacrament has the dimension of ‘invite and send’. It is also to rediscover that all Sacraments are doors to the sacred.

The three phases that take place in a Sacrament are — the Word of God invites us to the door; the Word of God points us to the door and the Word of God opens us to new encounters.

We are not just static — we are all called to become more than who we are. If we consciously participate in the Sacraments, you’ll notice the Sacrament makes us new every day.

The most powerful is the Eucharist – as we are fed to feed.

People who get tired of Mass and Communion is because they are not giving.

What we receive, we must give out or it’s like being constipated. When we share and are involved with other people, the food we receive in the Eucharist gets burnt and then you’ll feel hungry and thirst for more and the cycle continues.

Jesus too felt energy go out from him and He went to His father, in quiet, to replenish.

Creation was designed to give – water, plants, fruits, trees. Only man doesn’t know how to give – we are consumers.

Post-anniversary — what are your immediate and long-term plans for the diocese?
The countdown to PMPC2026 begins. We are also preparing for the three-day Annual Clergy Discernment in January (usually held in November) whereby the team will discern the various reports from the parishes, evaluate the year 2022 and prepare an action plan for 2023.

Our next focus is the Diocesan Pastoral Assembly called for by the PMPC team in August 2023. This meeting will be held simultaneously in the other dioceses.

We are also consolidating parishes and their BECs. We are looking to see if the pastoral infrastructures are in place, and effective 2023, all parishes’ accounts must be audited by external auditors to ensure transparency and accountability.

We will also be looking into developing the Social Mission of the Diocese. The diocese has its administrative arm called the Curia and the Pastoral arm. Thus far, almost every ministry is placed under the Pastoral arm and it’s an overload. So, I started a third arm called Social Mission and Caritas-MJDOHD will spear head this section. While maintain their independence, St Vincent De Paul, POHD, Orang Asli, Creation Justice, Migrant Ministry and others will come under this new arm. Msgr Michcel Mannayagam will remain as advisor for the next six months as Fr Martinian Lee eases into his new role heading Social Mission.

How do you feel as Shepherd of the south during these trying times?
To me, trying times mean that the harvest is plentiful but labourers are few. Another area of concern is: are we doing the Lord’s work or is there an individual agenda?

The (Lord’s) Kingdom or the new heaven and new earth is far from being a reality. Two thousand years since Christ’s time we are still trying to iron things out. One day we move forward and the next day we take 10 steps back.

What is your go-to activity to cope with stress and challenges?
 As an introvert, I flourish when I isolate myself and become quiet. It keeps me centred. While I enjoy people and groups, there are times I need to withdraw.

Being alone doesn’t mean being lonely. I enjoy silence, it calms my spirit. I like taking long walks and saying the Rosary. I feed the goats. I play with my dog Blue.

I also get inspiration from TV shows, they are like parables to me and I enjoy reading.

That aside I don’t have great hobbies.

Look out for our supplement on the Malacca Johore Diocese in our next issue.

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