Profile changes of parish communities in Malaysia

One aspect of Malaysia’s colonial legacy on the Church was the separation of the lay faithful for Sunday worship based on language.

May 03, 2024

Reminiscing Church - Richard Chia

One aspect of Malaysia’s colonial legacy on the Church was the separation of the lay faithful for Sunday worship based on language. Churches were designated as English-speaking, Chinese-speaking, Tamil-speaking, or Bahasa-speaking, leading Catholics to attend services where their preferred language was spoken. Often, this resulted in the faithful travelling long distances to reach these churches.

As the decades passed, with the dwindling of missionary priests – specifically the French and Chinese missionaries – the local Malaysian priests stepped up to fill the shepherd’s role. Naturally, they are multi-linguistic, as with most Malaysians brought up in the Malaysian education and culture. Churches in Malaysia became multi-linguistic, catering to the diverse language-speaking community.

The lay faithful still had the option to worship in their language of preference, but with one major difference, they no longer had to travel far. The parish community evolved to become a neighbourhood community of diverse language-speaking parishioners. Parish structures, ministries, events and catechism was developed to cater to the various language-groups. At times, they came together to celebrate as one parish community, eg parish feast days, Corpus Christi celebrations, etc.

At the turn of the millennium, when the nation opened its doors to foreign university students and developed policies to attract more foreign business investment, a surge of foreign nationals flooded in. A sizable number of these foreign nationals are Catholics, and started worshipping in many of the Churches in Malaysia. As they congregated in the Church, they started playing an active role in the life of the parish.

The World Bank, East Asia Pacific region, in its 2013 report said that more than two thirds of the foreign nationals in Malaysia are found in Selangor, Sabah and Johor states. In these states, the influx of foreign students and workers mainly came from Philippines, Indonesia, China, India, and a large number from the continent of Africa. Under the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees programme, many more came from the sub-continent of Indo-China, namely Myanmar. In some city parishes, pockets of Catholic lay faithful hailing from South Korea, Japan, South American nations, in addition to the many expatriate professionals from Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand became prominent.

The increase and profile changes in the Catholic population may not be significant on a parish-by-parish level, but looking at it from a macro level, over a span of thirty years, it is significant.

According to statistics from the Catholic Directory and Ordo 1990 until 2020, published by the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei, the increase in Catholic population in Malaysia had jumped from 0.5 million in 1990 to 1.1 million in 2020, or growth of 125 per cent. In comparison, the Department of Statistics Malaysia (DOSM) estimates of population in Malaysia in 1990 was 18.1 million, while in 2020 was 32.4 million, with growth of 79 per cent only.

Another notable difference, based on censuses conducted by the Archdiocese of KL in 2015 and Diocese of Malacca Johore in 2019, are the population of female Catholics in our churches, which shows a ratio of 53 per cent female versus 47 per cent males. DOSM’s statistics shows an average of 106 males for every 100 females (or, 48.5 per cent female vs. 51.5 per cent male) in Malaysia.

What this means for our churches in Malaysia are:
1. The parish communities need to welcome and integrate the various foreign national Catholics in our midst, as well as cater for the multilingual Malaysian population.

2. The impact of these changes are not only at the celebration of the Holy Eucharist, but also at the sacramental, pastoral and parish administrative level. Young foreign national couples wishing to get married in church, married foreign national couples bringing infants for baptism and catechism, or adult foreign nationals wishing to join the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. Not to mention bereavements, homebound, house blessings, etc.

3. Our Basic Ecclesial Communities (BECs) too have to re-look its method of outreach, and objective. It has to be open to foreign national Catholics living in the neighbourhood, who may call Malaysia home (be it temporary or long term).

4. Female Catholics are playing a significant role in our parishes, and have naturally assumed some leadership role in the various ministries and groups in the Church.

Another prominent change for the Church in Malaysia is the growing number of aging parishioners seated in the church pews. In the two censuses conducted, parishioners aged 20 years and below are only 24-26 per cent, while those aged 50 years and above are 29-32 per cent. In many parishes, the senior citizen groups are the only ministry that is growing. The Archdiocese of KL has a ministry for grandparents.

Numerous reasons can be given for the declining youth population in church — busy lifestyle (tuition, long hours at school/work, career-track, 24x7 work mentality), low birth rates (one or two child families), migration (either for studies or work opportunities), boring sermons, late marriages (put on hold until job stability), etc. As the clergy ages, so does the Catholic lay faithful.

As the Universal Church heads towards Synod 2024 in October, many issues are escalated by different countries. One prominent global issue is the declining call to priestly and religious vocations. This had led many western countries to suggest alternative candidates to the clergy, rather than address the real elephant in the room, namely, the need to intensify the call to vocations, prayer and evangelisation. Is this a wake-up call for the Church in Malaysia? We too may be heading in that direction, as many of our clergy are aged 50 years and above.

(Richard Chia shares his experiences on the journey of the Church in Malaysia in the past forty years, its challenges and achievements as it moves toward synodality.)

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