Being outside to find what is truly inside

When public Masses resume, some may not return. The number of Catholics away from church has been growing. Has the pandemic accelerated that number? From a personal experience though, sometimes being outside allows us to see what is truly inside.

Apr 29, 2022

Tony See
When public Masses resume, some may not return. The number of Catholics away from church has been growing. Has the pandemic accelerated that number? From a personal experience though, sometimes being outside allows us to see what is truly inside. This is not to justify staying away but to give hope to those who find themselves away.

I am happy to share my life story which, through the many blessed interventions of the Holy Spirit, became my faith story. I grew up a devout Catholic through the usual route — being an altar server and praying the Rosary under the forceful watch of my grandmother. I had also wanted to live in a juniorate to be a religious brother. It was from this foundation that I unexpectedly slipped and drifted away for 15 years.

I relate well to the parable of the Prodigal Son. On my journey while I was out, I squandered the rich inheritance of my Catholic faith. Looking back and mapping these events, I realise that Our Father had always been watching over me. I may have left Him, but He never left me. His generosity went further and affirmed me in a very special way. He honoured my bad times by bestowing on me the privilege to start Landings – a ministry welcoming returning Catholics – in Southeast Asia. You need a thief to catch a thief.

Adult life did not start well. After three attempts at ‘A’ levels, I still failed at getting into university. Against all odds, I tripped at the first hurdle. I was so low on self-esteem that I abandoned my friends. I became even more fervent in prayer, desperately accepting Jesus as my only friend. In fear I prayed, “This world is too big for me. Show me the way”. My only friend answered.

I miraculously got a job in foreign exchange, an industry I am in till now. The miracles surrounding it are for another sharing. Here my life was made and lost, though I have come to realise that we are never lost and every experience in life, good as well as bad, will always be used by the Spirit to bear fruit. I am 61 now and my life has come full circle, qualifying me to testify.

With money, youthful energy, and health, who needs God? The temptations of the entertainment world were beckoning. Hurting my own parents, I left the kampung to live in a city apartment. We were poor and my parents could not understand why I was being so prodigal. Like the Prodigal Son, I focused only on self, wanting more.

The parties were good. I was getting very good at drinking. There were no hardships, nothing to prompt me to kneel and pray. Happiness was no longer in God. Happiness was a pint of beer away. I drifted from my faith life. It was hanging on a thread; only the promise I made my mother that I would always go for Sunday Mass. Being physically there, but spiritually absent, I was like the elder son in the parable. Lost inside church.

In the parable, the father allowed his son to leave. Stopping him would only distance their relationship. God’s love includes our complete freedom to choose, even if our choices meant leaving the Church. His love accompanies us through every consequence of our choices. He waits to be seen, for us to respond to His call to come back. When we do return, we are met with an embrace and a brushing away of the bad things we did. His love is never judgmental, only welcoming.

And so, it was. My first confession in many years was such. My fear to return was exaggerated. It took me three weeks to make it. The first attempt was spent doing a recce, checking queues as I was embarrassed to be seen, trying to find the fastest priest. The second time, I bravely went but chickened out. The third time, I entered the confessional with a written list to confess. It happened as I closed the door. I was overwhelmed, breaking down, unable to speak. In between sobs, I heard the gentle voice, “It is OK, your sins are forgiven”. I was embraced, my prepared list not needed.

I was 40 when I heard my call. I was well set up with a good job and a young family. But I was going mental with a work and life routine that had fallen into what I then perceived as a meaningless cycle. It was in this emptiness that I heard the faint echoes of God’s call. My life felt unfulfilled. I began searching for the meaning and purpose of life.

It has been 20 years since my journey back. It began with involvement in the RCIA and led eventually to Landings. Often along the way, I would ask God, “Why me?” Less educated in the eyes of the world, my experiences in life were in the grayer shades. Then, in an encounter with a returning Catholic, he asked and was surprised when I said yes to meeting him in a bar. I needed to drink a bottle of whisky to discuss God. The Spirit used something I was good at. We finished the bottle, and he was back in Church. God blesses every life experience by making each fruitful.

My experiences with returning Catholics are very affirming. When they return, they come back with a purpose. Their lived experiences with God outside the traditional boundaries of how we define ‘church’ leaves them with a deep conviction and a strong fervour to go on to live a faith life of meaning and purpose.

Sometimes, it is in being outside that we find what is truly inside.

(Tony See, currently based in Bangkok, is coordinator for Landings in southeast Asia. His pastoral work has accompanied many returning Catholics to rediscover God in their daily life in Singapore and Malaysia.)

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