Dear Reverend Fathers,
It is a pleasure for me to be with you this morning at your annual gathering of the Catholic Commission for the Clergy. I note that this is your 25th gathering, and so a cause for some festivity as you celebrate your Silver Jubilee. I wish to thank the organisers of this meeting for allowing the Pontifical Representative to address you. In fact this has become something of an annual appointment, as this is the third time I have been able to talk with you the priests, who are in the front line pastorally and have primary responsibility for evangelisation.
This year the theme of your annual seminar is in keeping with the Asian Mission Congress (AMC), which has just concluded in Chiang Mai “Telling the Story of Jesus to Thais”. The organisers have asked that I speak to you about proclaiming Christ in the countries where I am competent as Papal Representative. That being the case, the title I have chosen for this talk, is intended to reflect the fact that, as Apostolic Nuncio and Delegate, in this part of South East Asia, I have been charged by the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI with caring for seven countries. With the Kingdom of Thailand, the Kingdom of Cambodia and the Republic of Singapore, the Holy See has diplomatic relations, and so I am the Apostolic Nuncio in those countries. In the Union of Myanmar, the Democratic Republic of Laos, the Republic of Malaysia and Brunei Darussalm, I am the Apostolic Delegate, as the Holy See has not yet established diplomatic relations. As it already features in your programme, I shall not dwell on the proclamation of the Gospel in Thailand, but shall only speak about four of the other countries: Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos and Malaysia (wishing, due to space, to leave Singapore and Brunei for another moment).
I should tell you at once that I prepared this discourse prior to AMC which concluded the day before yesterday. That being the case, I am slightly limited in that I am sure the final documents of that historic gathering, the first of its kind in Asia, would be invaluable in offering insights for this talk. In addition, I feel hindered in another way: Having been present in this region of the world for a little less than three years, I am not really in position to offer you precisely formulated answers to the question you have asked of me. I must, therefore, content myself with offering you some personal insights which are the fruit of my experience, gathered especially through my pastoral visits to those countries, without being an indepth analysis.
Having said that, there are some premises I should present, before entering into this subject:
@ All the countries that I shall consider in this address have a wealth of cultural and religious tradition. Far be it from me to propose a graduated presentation of them all based on their differing historical, and sometimes contrasting, development with its repercussions for the situation today;
@ The implantation of Christianity in some of the countries happened simultaneously, whereas in others it happened at different times and with differing results;
@ As it stands today, among these countries there is real diversity with regard to the economic situation, the socio-political reality and religion;
@ By way of methodology, I shall offer some thoughts on my experiences in four areas:
I start with Myanmar, and in each of the reflections we will be guided by the Word of God, the Magisterium of the Church and a practical example:
@ The Word of God taken from the Acts of the Apostles (4:32): “And all those who were of the faith were one in heart and soul”;
@ The Magisterium of the Church: Redemptoris Missio (n.43): “The Church is called to bear witness to Christ by taking courageous and prophetic stands in the face of the corruption of political or economic power; by not seeking her own glory and material wealth; by using her resources to serve the poorest of the poor and by imitating Christ’s own simplicity of life”.
@ The model and example: Faithfulness and missionary joy, like of Fathers Mattarucco and Noel. PIME.
Let me tell you about the meeting I had with these two elderly priests from the PIME, in Myanmar. We were in Taunggyi at the bedside of Father Igino Mattarucco, 84 years old, who in his frailty still manifested a strong bond to the land of mission, even to the point of allowing it to come before his country of origin, Italy, in his affections. It is there, in Myanmar the land of mission, that he wanted to be buried. At that final meeting, he received the last blessing, and as the Pope’s Representive I expressed immense gratitude to this missionary who had spent all his life for the mission with people with faithfulness and zeal, making himself one with the people of that place, sharing their pain, trials, poverty, challenges and hopes. Then there was Father Noel in Pekhon. I shall not forget the joy that sparkled from those clear and serene eyes; even if his legs were no longer able to support him. There he was in the middle of the people of the village where he had always announced the Good News with joy.
What does this teach us? That the mission goes on in faithfulness and joy. The faith transmitted to the young Church in Myanmar has made it into a Church that produces missionaries. It is blessed with many vocations; in fact, there is need to build a new Institute of Theology in order to accommodate the increasing number of candidates for the priesthood. The first priests destined for the mission in Africa have been ordained, and have gone to that Continent. Pope Paul VI’s exhortation in Evangelii Nuntiandi (n.62) has been heeded: “the Church is an evangeliser, but she begins by being evangelised herself”! The Church in Myanmar goes on consolidating its foundations: in the course of this year two new dioceses (Pekhon and Banmaw) have been created in order to meet the greater pastoral needs.
Another important and emotional event that has struck me during my frequent pastoral visits arises from the strong bond of the faith of the population. You can sense it from the moment you receive a warm greeting, or go to one of the grand ceremonies (the National Eucharistic Congress, Episcopal and Priestly Ordinations, etc.) at which thousands of people participate. I still have imprinted on my memory the image of the Eucharistic Procession in Pekhon, with thousands of the faithful, from youngsters to the elderly, taking part. I remember the faith of the first Christian communities, like those of the Catacombs, for their purity and attachment, their Eucharistic and Marian devotion. It called to mind the framework of the first Christian communities of the Acts of the Apostles.
@ The Word of God to guide us in this second reflection, which is dedicated to Laos, is : “Don’t be afraid, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the Kingdom” (Lk 12:32).
@ From the Magisterium of the Church: Deus Caritas Est (n.35): “The more we do for others, the more we understand and appropriate the words of Christ: ‘We are useless servants’” (Lk 17:10).
@ The model and example: the gratitude of a little leper.
An abiding memory for me is that of the blessing, two years ago, of the first Chapel opened after the end of the communist regime in the north of Laos. In the poverty of this village the faith had resisted for more than three decades without the presence of a priest or a religious. That faith was passed on by word of mouth from father to son; a flame kept burning by the breath of the Holy Spirit. Do not fear little flock!
The Church there is being rebuilt and reformed, with the cooperation also of the Church in Thailand. Help is also provided by priests from Lux Mundi for the formation of the seminarians of Takkhet; the Thai Sisters of Saint Paul of Chartres work the disabled. The contribution of the Thai Church helps to meet the needs of the education and formation of seminarians and those aspiring to the consecrated life.
In his first Encyclical Letter, Deus Caritas Est (DCE), Pope Benedict XVI states that: “Charity […] cannot be used as a means of engaging in what is nowadays considered proselytism. Love is free; it is not practised as a way of achieving other ends. But this does not mean that charitable activity must somehow leave God and Christ aside. For it is always concerned with the whole man. Often the deepest cause of suffering is the very absence of God” (DCE, n.31c). Loving others with the free gift of Christian charitable love is a powerful way to proclaim the Gospel through the witness of solidarity.
Then there is the story of the little child in a leper colony. With a lot of care and love he gave me a little box, which I put one side together with the many other flower garlands that I was so generously offered. I did not want to open the gifts in public, but rather wait until I was in private. When I opened the little box, to my surprise and astonishment I discovered a small package containing a pinch of detergent. It was for me a lesson in generosity and, at the same time, sacrifice. It was a gesture full of significance and Christian value. That little child had deprived himself of something precious for his life, because a bit of detergent is absolutely essential to someone suffering with leprosy in order to wash themselves and the folds in their skin, and keep themselves clean; really, it was the like the widow’s pence. It truly was a gesture of sacrifice and generosity. In a world where the waves of consumerism seek to engulf even the lives of those consecrated to God, it takes sacrifice to keep our hearts open: “But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does the love of God remain in him?” (1 Jn 3:17).
@ Again The Word of God will guide us in this third reflection on Cambodia: “Now about eight days after this had been said, he took with him Peter, John and James and went up the mountain to pray” (Lk 9:28);
@ From the Magisterium of the Church: “Religious engaged in contemplation alone sustain through their prayers the missionary activity of the Church For it is God who opens the minds of non-Christians to here the Gospel, and who makes the word of salvation fruitful in their hearts” (Sacred Congregation for Religious and Secular Institutes, Venite Seorsum, 15.8.1969, III; cf. Lumen Gentium, n. 6);
@ The model and example: The new Korean Carmelite monastery in Phnom Penh.
I want to tell you the story of the birth of a Carmelite Monastery in Cambodia, a land that is traditionally Buddhist, as it gives testimony to the presence of the Kingdom of Heaven. In celebration of the 450 years of the Mission in Cambodia, a Carmelite Monastery is being founded from Korea.
It was an encouraging experience to fine those nuns, full of enthusiasm and joy, even in the midst of a particular situation where their mission is to maintain the lamp of faith. Their silent presence through contemplative life is an important source of energy for the missionary activities for the local church. The Carmelite nuns recall to us the important of prayer and contemplation in our daily pastoral ministry. As Pope Benedict XVI stated: “Prayer, as a means of drawing ever new strength from Christ, is concretely and urgently needed. People who pray are not wasting their time, even though the situation appears desperate and seems to call for action alone. Piety does not undermine the struggle against the poverty of our neighbours, however extreme” (DCE, n.36). I could see their monastic zeal in the way they were interested in the local culture and the initiative with which they started learning the local language, even before settling down in the new place and to have a proper house of their own for the monastery.
“What you here whispered, proclaim upon the rooftops…” (Mt 10:27). In the attic of a house Christ is proclaimed and Mass celebrated in the presence of a group of young “seekers of Christ”. It was a small group of young people who heard about Jesus; they are curious and desirous to know Christ. Like the sower in the parable of Jesus, the missionary spread the Word of God; like a seed falling in the good soil, the Word of God can produce fruits in the human life. That ‘housetop’, where I celebrated Mass for that group of young people, left in me the impression of what we read in the ‘Acts of the Apostles’ “…Peter went to the housetop at about the sixth hour to say his prayers” (Act 10:9). It is the breath of the Holy Spirit at work, animating the Mission of the Church (Redemptoris Missio, n.28): “The Risen Christ is now at work in human hearts through the strength of his Spirit, not only instilling a desire for the world to come but also thereby animating, purifying and reinforcing the noble aspirations which drive the human family to make its life one that is more human and to direct the whole earth to this end” (cf. Gaudium et Spes, n.38).
@ The Word of God to guide us in this final reflection on Malaysia is taken from the Letter to the Hebrews: “the Word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12);
@ From the Migisterium of the Church: The Second Vatican Council in Dei Verbum on Lectio Divina and the prayerful reading of the Word of God. Also in Novo Millennio Ineunte (n. 39): “It is especially necessary that listening to the word of God should become a life-giving encounter, in the ancient and ever valid tradition of lectio divina, which draws from the biblical text the living world which questions directs and shapes our lives”.
@ The model and example: the Basic Ecclesial Communities in the three diocese of Peninsular Malaysia.
Currently there are 1735 Basic Ecclesial Communities in the dioceses of the Peninsular Malaysia (Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Melaka-Johor). Each BEC is a gathering of about 10 to 20 families. They meet once a month to praise and worship God, read and reflect on His Word, pray for various needs and then share fellowship as sisters brothers.
The Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) offer the experience of living the Word of God, the teaching of the Church and the work of catechesis in small groups. The work of catechetical instruction is on-going, progressing by stages.
In Novo Millennio Ineunte Pope John Paul II called for the building of a spirituality of communion (NMI, n.42: “It is in building this communion of love that the Church appears as “sacrament”, as the “sign and instrument of intimate union with God and of the unity of the human race” (cf. Lumen Gentium, n.1). “To make the Church the home and the school of communion: that is the great challenge facing us in the millennium which is now beginning, if we to be faithful to God’s plan and respond to the world’s deepest yearnings” (NMI, n.43). The experience of the basic Ecclesial Community responds, in some way, to this exhortation.
CONCLUSION – An Exhortation
Dear Brothers in the priesthood
In summing up this short sharing of a pastoral character, through which I tried to expose my limited experiences in this Asian region, here are a few elements that could be considered necessary to “tell the story of Jesus”:
@ The two elderly pioneers of the mission of PIME in Myanmar teach us to live the missionary vocation, whether inside one’s motherland or outside, in fidelity, total dedication and in the joy of the priestly ministry; the Lord encourages us in this effort to make haste to turn to him when we are discouraged, tried, sorrowful or frustrated, because he will gives us relief and solace;
@ The people entrusted to us, the little flock, has a richness of genuine and enthusiastic faith; it is for us pastors, to maintain that faith alive and make it mature in the community through catechesis, liturgy, Sacramental life, the Word of God etc;
@ We have to understand that an evangelised Church should feel the duty to make itself an evangelising Church; the Thai Mission Society is an example in this respect;
@ The assistance offered to the needy in Laos makes us to understand the true sense of Christian solidarity. The charitable services (Diakonia) – as the Holy Father Pope Benedict XVI indicated in his Encyclical “Deus Caritas est” – is one of the triple tasks of the Church, together with the proclamation of the Word of God (Kerigna-matyria) and the celebration of the Sacraments (Liturgy). “Only if I serve my neighbour can my eyes be opened to what God does for me and how much he loves me” (DCE n.18). Finally the Holy Father affirms that “for the Church, charity is not a kind of a welfare activity which could equally be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being” (DCE n. 25). Through the charitable activities itself the truth that ‘God is love’ is being preached;
@ The intrusive risk brought about by a consumeristic and secularising mentality challenges us to be on guard to preserve the spiritual and cultural values of this region; For us, the need to be vigilant requires, also as ministers of the Lord, to shun the “temptation” coming from satisfaction based on consumerism;
@ The Cloistered Carmelite Nuns from Korea who started a new monastery in Cambodia inspire us to direct our attention to contemplation; the risk of super-activism in the apostolic life should be compensated by long intervals given to prayer; to posses, like Mary, “a contemplative look”; in this regard, we are specially reminded of the adoration of the Most Blessed Sacrament;
@ The Basic Ecclesial Communities (BEC) of the Peninsular Malaysia remain as an invitation to build up the spirituality of communion, which helps us to rediscover in our communities, the essential values of the Word of God and of the Catechesis, for transforming our communities into ‘homes and schools of communion’.
Dear Brothers in Christ,
I would like to conclude this reflection with the encouraging words of Pope Benedict XVI, which he pronounced at the beginning of his Pontificate: “The Church is alive and young” and this could be said of these Churches of South-East Asia.
It is a Church on the move to announce faithfully the good news of the Lord in the words and the witness of life. The words of the Saviour are a great solace for us in this mission: “I will be with you to the end …without me you can do nothing!”
May example of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the first missionary of her Son, teach us to follow Jesus in this service to His Church.