White elephants in our churches?

Posted on behalf of Chris Ow

A perverse thought came to my mind just one weekend ago: Have we been breeding white elephants within our Church buildings? The idea arose not from some strange encounters with albino pachyderm excrement, but from a random association between a north-eastern landmark of a train station and an integral part of Catholic Church architecture.

I was a visiting worshipper in a parish church in the northeast. It was the Saturday before Ash Wednesday and I was hoping to go for Confession before the anticipated Sunday Mass (otherwise known as Sunset Mass). So upon entering the church, I stopped to ask one of the wardens about the possibility of having my confession heard.

She pointed me to the Confessionals but warned me that sometimes the priests don't turn up. Notwithstanding her well-intentioned warning, I decided to sit at the pew next to the confessional and wait anyway. The wait was in vain.

Confessionals would surely seem to be architectural anachronisms to a disinterested non-Catholic observer noting their use (or rather their under-utilisation). Have we as Church turned our confessionals into white elephants? Are we not treating them as relics of a bygone era?

Catholics are not afraid of the Sacrament. The long lines at Advent and Lenten penitential services should serve as ample evidence. If that will not suffice, the hunger for the Sacrament is also manifest at St Alphonsus everyday of the week, and especially on Saturdays. The Redemptorists fathers seem to understand well this need, and they work to meet it.

Yet it does seem that the simple anonymity, privacy, and intimacy of the Confessional is no longer preferred in some of our parish churches. Perhaps the Singaporean Catholics of today are more comfortable confessing face to face in the priest's office or elsewhere, but on the basis of (my rather limited) personal experience and discussions with others, I find that quite unliklely. I might be wrong about this, but I think a large majority of local Catholics would be far more comfortable making their confessions within the Confessional rather than without.

It's also a chicken and egg problem of course. If priests don't enter the Confessionals routinely, penitents will not come. Yet if the demand for Confession is perceived to be low, priests will push the hearing of Confessions in the parish Confessionals down their long list of priorities.

Action is what is needed. And this on both sides at once. Parishioners need to be more vocal in expressing their desire for their priests to be available for Confessions, especially before Masses. Priests too should be bold in taking the initiative to make the Sacrament available.

I recall with fondness an old missionary priest (now deceased) whom I knew had a habit of always carrying either his breviary or missal with him. Before each Mass, he would sit waiting outside the Confessional. He was ready at the slightest notice to step in to hear a Confession, even if it was before an early morning Mass. Why are such examples so rare these days? Have we lost something along the way?
Written by Chris Ow

Population Control

It is extremely interesting to learn of some of the things our parents had to go through. One of them was the government's policy to "Stop At Two", just as China now has the policy for each family to only have one child. One of the consequences of carrying out this policy is the now lack of population growth which has resulted in the government offering tax benefits to those with larger families, and to import foreign talent, because its only natural resource - population - is dwindling.

Some of our parents in Singapore greatly resent the government for this, especially those who were deceived into sterilization, which is, after all, an irreversible process.

Other forms of contraceptives have also resulted in many of today's problems. Breakdown of marriages, for one. And indeed an overall devaluation of sex. The primary reason why our teenagers are having sex at such a young age is because of a contraceptive mentality that is prevalent in our society.

What is a contraceptive society? One that believes pregnancy to be a disease, usually economically, and does what it can to "cure" or prevent this disease.

What our government, and many governments in the world today, fail to realise is that their solution to the rampant problem of promiscuous sex is the very root of the problem!

The first paragraph of the Fourth Sunday of Lent's first reading from 2 Chronicles holds a deeper meaning for our world today, with the new Temple of the Lord being the human body.

2 Chronicles 36:14-16

All the heads of the priesthood, and the people too, added infidelity to infidelity, copying all the shameful practices of the nations and defiling the Temple that the Lord had consecrated for himself in Jerusalem. The Lord, the God of their ancestors, tirelessly sent them messenger after messenger, since he wished to spare his people and his house. But they ridiculed the messengers of God, they despised his words, they laughed at his prophets, until at last the wrath of the Lord rose so high against his people that there was no further remedy.

I think what's even more amazing is Pope Paul VI's predictions made in 1968. He predicted in his encyclical "Humanae Vitae" that the widespread use of contraception would lead to "conjugal infidelity and the general lowering of morality."

This is exactly what has taken place. Who would deny that the rates of abortion, divorce, family breakdown, wife and child abuse, venereal disease and out-of-wedlock births have all massively increased since the mid-1960s?

Skeptics would claim that there is no correlation between these statistics and the use of contraceptives. Indeed there would be none if the Church today claims that the contraceptives play a major role in this. But what makes the Church's claim effective and plausible is that it made this claim, this prediction, before the troubles occurred on such a large scale.

Even in science, one of the criteria of the validity and truth of a scientific theory is that it must be able to make accurate predictions about an occurrence. But where does religion and science meet in this case? In the field of social science.

What contraceptives has done since 1968 is to drive the transformation of attitudes towards sex. This rapid change in the attitudes towards sex would not have been possible or sustainable without easy access to reliable contraceptive. In this prediction, Paul VI was right.

But that's not all. He also warned that man would lose respect for woman and "no longer [care] for her physical and psychological equilibrium", to the point that he would consider her "as a mere instrument of selfish enjoyment, and no longer as his respected and beloved companion".

What this means is that, according to the pope, contraception might be marketed as liberating for women, but the real "beneficiaries" of birth control pills and devices would be men.

Now, three, coming to four, decades later, exactly as Paul VI suggested, contraception has released males - to a degree never seen or recorded before in history - from responsibility for their sexual aggression.

In this process, one of the stranger ironies of the contraception debate in the past generation has been that many feminists, particularly in America, have attacked the Catholic Church for her alleged disregard of women. But the thing is, the Church in "Humanae Vitae" was the one who first identified and rejected sexual exploitation of women years before that message entered the cultural mainstream.

So again Pope Paul VI made an accurate prediction here.

But now we come to Pope Paul VI's third prediction, which brings us back to the title of this post.

The pope also warned that the widespread use of contraception would place a "dangerous weapon... in the hands of those public authorities who take no heed of moral exigencies."

One of the Nazi efforts to produce the ultimate race of human beings was to explore the field of eugenics, and we know that didn't disappear in 1945.

In fact, population control policies are now an accepted part of nearly every foreign aid discussion. Massive export of contraceptives, abortion, and sterilization by the developed world to developing countries is a thinly disguised form of population warfare and cultural re-engineering. In addition such are frequently as a prerequisite for aid dollars and are often in direct contradiction to local moral traditions.

Once again, Pope Paul VI has been proven right.

Fourth, he warned that contraception would mislead human beings into thinking they had unlimited dominion over their human bodies, relentlessly turning the human person into the object of his or her own intrusive power.

Here we see yet another irony: In evading the truth and fleeing into the false freedom provided by contraception and abortion, an exaggerated feminism has actively colluded in women's dehumanization.

A man and a woman participate uniquely in the glory of God by their ability to co-create new life with Him. At the heart of contraception, however, is the assumption that fertility is an infection which must be attacked and controlled, exactly as antibiotics attack bacteria.

In this attitude, we can see the organic link between contraception and abortion. If fertility can be misrepresented as an infection to be attacked, so too can new life!

In either case, a defining element of woman's identity - her potential for bearing new life - is recast as a weakness requiring vigilant distrust and "treatment". Woman becomes the object of the tools she relies on to ensure her own liberation and defense, while man takes no share of the burden.

Once more, Paul VI was right.

From this last point, much much more has been born, if you pardon the expression, from contraceptive technology - in vitro fertilisation, cloning, genetic manipulation, and embryo experimentation.

Contraceptive technology, because of its impact on sexual intimacy, has subverted our understanding of the purpose of sexuality, fertility and marriage itself.

All this leads to a greater and more widespread acceptance of homosexuality, abortion, disregard of human life, euthanasia, throwing newborn babies down the rubbish chute, masturbation, pornography, multiple sexual partners at all ages, even bestiality.

Welcome to the world we live in where such problems invaded our shores the day we opened our doors to contraceptive technology. In country after country, it is always the same thing. Once you have contraception, the rest is completely predictable.

But as it says in John 3:17, Christ came not to condemn but to save. So Pope Paul VI did not condemn his and our generation, but offered the teaching of the duties and responsibilities of married life.

And in our own generation, Pope John Paul II in his Theology of the Body explained the reasons behind Pope Paul VI's teachings. And today, we have Christopher West who translates John Paul's very philosophical and scholarly language into simple English that you and I can understand.

Are you ready to be a Christian, to do what is necessary to preserve the sanctity of life and the human body?

(Some parts of this post has been extracted from Archbishop of Denver, Colorado (USA), Charles J. Chaput, ofm, in his pastoral letter to the people of God of northern Colorado on the truth and meaning of married love on June 22, 1998, titled "Paul VI was right".)

Laetare Sunday

The 4th Sunday of Lent is known as Laetare Sunday, because the first word of the Introit (ie. Entrance Antiphon) is "Laetare". The vestments used by the priest can be pink, instead of violet.

Laetáre Ierúsalem, et convéntum fácite omnes qui dilígitis eam: gaudéte cum laetítia, qui in tristítia fuístis: ut exsultétis, et satiémini ab ubéribus consolatiónis vestrae.

Laetátus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Dómini íbimus.

Rejoice, O Jerusalem; and gather round, all you who love her; rejoice in gladness, after having been in sorrow; exsult and be replenished with the consolation flowing from her motherly bosom. (Isaiah 66:10-11)

I rejoiced when it was said unto me, "Let us to go the house of the Lord". (Psalm 122(121): 1)

Translation from The Gregorian Missal.

It signifies a time of restrained rejoicing, which I personally observe is manifested in the words of the opening prayer.

Father of peace, we are joyful in your Word, your Son Jesus Christ, who reconciles us to you. Let us hasten towards Easter with the eagerness of faith and love.

More from the Catholic Encyclopedia also. Fr John Zulhsdorf also explains a bit and provides a more literal translation of the Latin of the Opening prayer.

I hope the priest celebrating Mass in your parish mentions the why and what of Laetare Sunday. Mine did, and I'm grateful.

Did they teach you about the sign of the cross?

Did your Sunday school teachers teach you how to make the sign of the cross?

I did not even dare ask whether they taught you what the sign of the cross meant, or why do we sign ourselves with the cross or when should we sign ourselves with the cross. Such is my confidence in Sunday school these days, and the signs are very telling. One of the reasons why our youth are leaving could be that they have been presented with a very one-dimensional faith. One that is stripped of its rich heritage and history, reduced to some modern day pop-psychology or some simplistic view, a Jesus and me relationship and nothing more.

Anyway, back to my original question. I only fully realised that many sacred signs and participation at the liturgy have been forgotten when I stumbled upon this article in Adoremus Bulletin by Rev Cassian Folsom some years back. Let me try to adapt the section on how to make the sign of the cross here.

In the Byzantine tradition, the sign of the cross is made with the thumb, forefinger and middle finger held together whilst the ring finger and pinky should be touching the palm. In this simple gesture contains a mini catechesis. When we sign ourselves with the cross, we remind ourselves of the triune God whose name we begin our prayer and bless ourselves. We also remind ourselves of the dual nature of Jesus Christ that we profess in our Credo, that Jesus was truely God and truely man.

Pope Innocent III had this to say, "The sign of the cross is made with three fingers, because the signing is done together with the invocation of the Trinity. This is how it is done: from above to below, and from the right to the left, because Christ descended from the heavens to the earth, and from the Jews (right) he passed to the Gentiles (left)."

Fr Cassian then quotes Msgr Romano Guardini, an insighful educator and writer of Catholic spirituality. "When we cross ourselves, let it be with a real sign of the cross. Instead of a small cramped gesture that gives no notion of its meaning, let us make a large unhurried sign, from forehead to breast, from shoulder to shoulder, consciously feeling how it includes the whole of us, our thoughts, our attitudes, our body and soul, every part of us at once, how it consecrates and sanctifies us. It does so because it is the sign of the universe and the sign of our redemption. On the cross Christ redeemed mankind. By the cross He sanctifies man to the last shred and fiber of his being."

When do we make the sign of the cross?

In the Liturgy, there are many occasions when we make the sign of the cross:

    • with holy water before Mass begins;
    • at the beginning of Mass itself;
    • at the Gospel: "may the Lord purify my understanding, my speech, and my heart, so that I may receive the words of the Gospel";
    • we make the sign of the cross in the rite of baptism, for anointing the sick, for exorcisms, when we pray throughout the day;
    • in the Divine Office, we make the sign of the cross when we begin the Benedictus and the Magnificat, because they are Gospel canticles, and the Gospel stands for Christ Himself.
    • (if you now ask what is the Divine Office, well, I just have to cover that in another post)

Fr Cassian ends of the section on the sign of the cross with this:

"In the library of Sant'Anselmo in Rome, a place where I spend a good deal of time, there is a fine mosaic floor showing the cross of Christ, surrounded by the words: Ave Crux, Spes Unica. Hail O Cross, our only hope! The cross of Christ is indeed our only hope -- there is salvation in no other name. So when we make the sign of the cross, which we do many times each day, let's do it well!"

Truely, let us continue to mine the internet to understand and cherish our faith and tradition. And let us pray for our young ones that they be taught the same faith and tradition that have been passed down through the ages.

Many things we do now have lost their meaning
Many things that should be done are not
Many things have come to replace
what ought to be
Many things will not be remembered
if we do not cherish them
and what a great loss that will be

Songs at Mass

I first would like to thank Chris Yeo for putting me on the list of bloggers who can post. Now to fire my first salvo.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church tells us in paragraph 1158,

The harmony of signs (song, music, words, and actions) is all the more expressive and fruitful when expressed in the cultural richness of the People of God who celebrate.25 Hence "religious singing by the faithful is to be intelligently fostered so that in devotions and sacred exercises as well as in liturgical services," in conformity with the Church's norms, "the voices of the faithful may be heard." But "the texts intended to be sung must always be in conformity with Catholic doctrine. Indeed they should be drawn chiefly from the Sacred Scripture and from liturgical sources."

In the CCC paragraph highlighted above, it basically says the text for songs used at Mass has to be chiefly from Scripture and Liturgy, and in harmony with Catholic doctrine. Firstly, scriptural text. Open your Sunday Missal and you have the "Entrance Antiphon" and "Communion Antiphon". We have different antiphons for each Sunday. Look carefully to see where they come from. They come mainly from the Psalms and various parts of the Bible.

Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours regularly will know that the Psalms themselves are hymns expressing all sorts of emotion. Some Psalms beg the Lord for mercy, some praise Him for his goodness and so on. We know for sure that Jesus and Mary prayed the Psalms. The Antiphons have been used at Mass for a very long time, and the liturgical reforms of 1970 did not do away with them.

Yet, I'm sure we all agree it is common practice in our Archdiocese for choirs to make their own choices of hymns to be sung at Mass. Sometimes, (and often) the choices made tend to reflect the personal preferences of whoever is in charge of choosing the songs - and not the suitability for use at Mass. However, it is not a question of whether people know how to choose the right song. What I want to ask is this:

Why are we ditching the Psalms and Scripture Verses, meticulously chosen for us by the Church which have been in use for centuries, in favour of our personal preferences? And in the process, run the risk of going against what the Church teaches?

This question results from observing current liturgical practices.

Firstly, musical issues and the use of the vernacular at Mass. Musical settings of the Antiphons come down in the form of Gregorian chants (in Latin), which are difficult to sing. It would take some time for a group of singers to be competent in singing chant. There are simpler settings, such as the Simple Gradual, which is a collection of Psalms set to vastly easier melodies. These are approachable by anyone who has had basic musical education. Yet the Simple Gradual is in Latin - which generally conflicts with the normal practice in parishes nowadays to have Mass (and everything at Mass) in the vernacular.

Secondly, we actually can sing hymns at Mass- provided they are in a collection of hymns approved by the Bishop (see the GIRM, para 48) - and of course the hymns have to be in harmony with the Catechism's requirements. Unfortunately, Singapore does not have such a collection of hymns. The best we can do is to buy a hymnal which already has an imprimatur. Yet, policing is lax and choirs are left to choose from whatever music they can get their hands on, whether imprimatur or not, protestant, evangelical, lutheran etc etc. It also seems that not many people are well-formed enough (myself included) to look at texts inorder to check their conformity with Catholic doctrine.

Thirdly, the mistaken notion that the liturgical term "active participation" means external actions like singing, moving, doing and so on. This leads to choosing hymns that "the congregation knows" ie. already been sung in the parish for some time. Presumably, this is to avoid complaints from members of the congregation that they are unable to sing along. It might be unacceptable to some for me to say this - but we really don't have to get everyone to sing everything at Mass. "Active Participation" is primarily interior - we come to Mass to pray and unite ourselves with God's sacrifice, by virtue of our baptism.

We can't go wrong by singing Psalms. A setting of Psalms like By Flowing Waters can be used. Simple tones already available for Responsorial Psalms can be used too. These are simple enough for many choirs to manage. In places where the congregation still want to sing hymns, those found in the Liturgy of the Hours could also be used, as they are metrical and can be set against existing hymn melodies (eg. books like "Everyday Prayer"). Using existing hymnals with imprimatur, carefully scrutinized to screen out the dodgy hymns, is also possible. Finally, we can only pray for the Singapore collection of hymns to be ready.

Although the Antiphons are the least important part of the Mass, I have devoted an entire blog post to it. What is at stake here is the beliefs of the faithful. We pray about what we believe in, and vice versa. Singing the wrong kind of text has disastrous consequences for the faithful, especially those whose only contact with the Church is the Sunday Mass. If only it could be a simple manner for us to open the book, and sing what the Church tells us to.

Can We Keep Our Churches Catholic?

A few months ago, Chris Ow posted an article "Familiar or Foreign?: Church Architecture and Worship". I was working on an article for the new church to be built in Pasir Ris, and was checking up on this guy, Denis McNamara, when I came across this article which might interest some of us:

A Critical Look at "Environment and Art in Catholic Worship"--With Hope for the Future"

Do check it out and share your thoughts on this.