Unity in diversity

The Catholic Church in Malaysia too has the makings of a mini nation. It has representation of almost all ethnicities found in Malaysia.

Nov 19, 2023

Reminiscing Church - Richard Chia

If the universal Catholic Church were a nation, it would certainly be one of the largest nations in the world, with 1.3 billion “citizens” (according to Vatican statistics 2019), behind India and China in population. In terms of geography, its “citizens” would be living on every continent of the world, even in the remotest and busiest places on the planet. It would cover every single language known to humanity.

In terms of leadership, the Holy Father would be the most powerful person, commanding no army, no direct authority, yet able to lead its “citizens” remotely from Vatican City, the smallest nation in the world. Such a scenario would surely make all other nations envious and threatened, if this “nation” chose to “conquer” others.

The Catholic Church in Malaysia too has the makings of a mini nation. It has representation of almost all ethnicities found in Malaysia. It has its diversity of languages, geographical spread of people living in cities, towns, villages and estates. It has its structural organisation and chain of command. Like the universal Church, it has no direct power or authority, and no army, yet can lead its people towards its vision and mission.

Back in the days when the term muhibbah meant friendship, living in harmony, or caring for one another, we lived and breathed muhibbah every day. In schools, in our neighbourhood residential tamans, at work and anywhere people congregated. Back then, friends of different ethnicity would mix and mingle freely, visit each other frequently, have meals together and yak away uninhibited. Sadly, the same cannot be said for today’s society. Too much has changed in the country, making the spirit of muhibbah less talked about.

According to UCANews, Malaysia has an estimated 1.17 million Catholics, geographically dispersed in three archdioceses and six dioceses in Peninsular and East Malaysia. A large part of our Catholic population are found in Sabah and Sarawak, where the celebration of the Mass is done in our national language, Bahasa Malaysia (BM). In the Peninsular, in many of the churches, especially those located outside the big cities, Masses are celebrated in multiple languages (Mandarin, Tamil, English, BM), with none celebrated in Latin, the official language of the universal Church.

Despite the differences in language and in the background culture of its lay faithful, the people of God (Church) are very much united in faith with the universal Church in Rome.

The XVI Ordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops, held in Rome October 4-29, 2023, was a great showcase of the Catholic Church’s unity in diversity. Bringing together an estimated 345 people — clergy, religious, laymen and women — for a period of three weeks, was a major feat. The many nationalities, languages and cultures coming together are a logistical and administrative nightmare for anyone who has ever organised an event of this magnitude. Yet, all who attended share one thing in common: one common religion and one faith.

Very simply put, unity in diversity creates lots of opportunities to individual members of the Church community. It also creates challenges and issues that it has to grapple with. Not unlike any family, members of the family each has his or her own life to lead. Each member faces their own issues and achievements. There are family members who may be progressive, while others are complacent with their life. No two individual members think alike, and no two individuals encounter the same situation daily. Yet, at the end of the day, we belong to the family. We remain as one family, despite our differences in opinion, our own experiences and outlook of life. We may share, bond and relate with each other when we meet, but seldom do we impose our opinions on the other. We should also not insist the other members accept our opinions.

In the case of this synodal process, Our Holy Father Pope Francis has taken it many light years ahead. By appointing cardinals from the “peripheries” and not from “the traditional centres”, he has given a clear message that everyone is important, everyone is needed and have very much to contribute. It moves us out of our comfort zones, and forces us to review and examine our past actions, for the purpose of moving forward into the future.

In the same light, the Church in Malaysia is also undergoing its own reflective journey. In preparation for the Malaysia Pastoral Convention (previously called Pan Malaysia Pastoral Convention) scheduled for 2026, all the dioceses and archdioceses in Malaysia have been busy organising their local pastoral assemblies, engaging in dialogue with various communities, ministries and groups in its jurisdictions. No one is left out. All thoughts, opinions and ideas are compiled and listened to.

At the synod assembly in Rome, Pope Francis reminded the attendees that the Holy Spirit is the synod’s protagonist and called for expressing one’s self freely, while respectfully listening to all. This is to safeguard the synod’s discernment process and to allow the Holy Spirit to work within. Likewise, the Church in Malaysia should do the same. Allow more periods of silence, discernment and prayer.

As Church in Malaysia, our strength is in our diversity. In physics, we learn that magnets of opposite polarity attract, while magnets of similar polarity repel. The fact that our Church is filled with diverse groups of individuals, people of various cultures, languages and demographics, allows the Church to grow in different directions. With a strong, clear vision and direction, founded on Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, we can be sure this Church on earth will remain long after we depart. 

(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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