Towards a new New Year

As the world heralds in another new year, we inevitably grow one year older. We may not grow richer, taller, smarter or healthier, but we will certainly grow older and hopefully wiser.

Jan 05, 2024

Reminiscing Church - Richard Chia
As the world heralds in another new year, we inevitably grow one year older. We may not grow richer, taller, smarter or healthier, but we will certainly grow older and hopefully wiser. The Church in Malaysia too is now one year older, as it moves closer to the 1st Malaysia Pastoral Convention in 2026.

Towards the end of each year, the secular media normally highlights or summarises the year that had passed, and put forward a list of resolutions for the future. In 2023, there was no shortage of global breaking news, each as horrifying and gruesome as the next. From earthquakes, wars, wild fires, plane crashes, train collisions, etc. The list goes on, each with staggering velocity and worse than the previous ones. Each time these happen, the world is shocked, and there are numerous calls to end these senseless deaths. Religious organisations, including the Catholic Church, will hold vigils and prayers for the dead and suffering.

For corporate organisations and businesses, this is the time to review the company’s performances, make adjustments to their goals and set higher targets. For employees, they will review their career and seek better opportunities. For families, they may perhaps talk about family plans ? family relationships and bonds are what keeps any family together.

For the Universal Church, our Holy Father Pope Francis started the synodal process on October 9, 2021 and on Sept 29, 2023 in St Peter’s Basilica marked the culmination of the first session of the Synod on Synodality. The next session will take place in October 2024.

In the three weeks in October when the 363 voting delegates in the 16th Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops met, the Church underwent intense prayers and scrutiny. It was a period when the Church was subjected to a global microscope, where every word and action it said and did solicited comments. Rightly or wrongly, the Pope’s call for a media blackout and periods of silence during the assembly, further fuelled the anticipation.

Back home, the year 2023 has also been an eventful year. Having come out from the COVID pandemic, churches are gradually filling up with parishioners and activities. For many, the fear of the virus is still hanging in the air, as evidenced by the number of people who still wear face masks in Church and in public. One cannot be too relaxed especially after many lives were lost to this invisible danger.

A quick glance at the journey of the Church in Malaysia in the past twelve months may seem uneventful. For some, it may seem that the Church had slipped a few notches, based on the church attendance for weekend Masses. One thing prominent post-COVID, is the absence of paper-based church bulletins, leaflets and flyers usually available at the entrances of all churches. Instead, many churches have moved into digital media to obtain any information about going-ons in the church.

Online meetings and formations have not totally gone away. Some parish ministries and groups are still having its gatherings and meetings in hybrid (combination of physical and online), where attendance is somewhat better than before when physical meetings was the norm. Online talks and seminars seem to attract a larger audience, with a silent majority quietly connected.

This poses a challenge to the speaker or facilitator, as they need to adjust to this new form of participants. They need to be engaging online (to capture the attention of an audience who may be connected but not really there), have less physical movement (to be always within the camera frame), more wary of words used (in case it is recorded) and planned (to avoid silence or long pauses).

Looking ahead to the new year, will the Church remain “same old, same old”? I would think not. Too much has changed.

Physically, structurally and even liturgically, we may not see any changes. But, socially, mentally and individually, the people of God (the lay faithful) have changed. For those who lost their job, took a hefty pay-cut or lost a loved one, life will never be the same. Perhaps they may even question their faith, God, Church and religion.

For the young people who did their education online for two years, having to learn and interact with people may be new. This poses a challenge to our catechists in catechism who will need to create innovative ways to engage and to capture their attention span.

For adults struggling to earn a living, with the rising cost of everyday goods and the decline or closure of many businesses, means longer hours at work, or a second job. Participation and attendance in church events or activities may be compromised.

For the senior citizens and homemakers, perhaps they may be the only ones who can step forward to contribute their services in church. From statistics, the Catholic Church is seeing a significant increase in aging parishioners. In some churches, the parish ministry of the senior citizens is the only one growing each year.

For the clergy and religious, many will reach their retirement age and will eventually slow down. Though still available, their services will be less active as they settle down in their retirement. With the acute shortage of vocations to the priesthood and religious life, this would mean the lay faithful need to step up.

On a positive note, there is a silver lining. At the October 2023 Synod of Bishops, Pope Francis in his closing speech reminded the participants that “The Holy Spirit is the protagonist of this Synod”, and that we need to commit ourselves to prayer and silent contemplation of the Holy Spirit. What lies ahead is difficult to see with our human eyes. But we can be sure that the Holy Spirit is already at work in every one of us, and that the New Year can never be the same again.

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

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