Time passes …
Thirty years ago, on 16 May, the Custody of St Anthony (Malaysia-Singapore-Brunei) was canonically erected, dependent upon the Province of the Holy Spirit (Australia). We had two Singaporean Solemnly Professed friars (Friars Michael Goh and John Paul Tan), Friar Phillip Miscamble was our first Custos, and we were only in Singapore.
Fast forward to 2021, I am the third “local” Custos after Friars Michael D’Cruz and John Wong, and we are now also in Malaysia (Kuching, Johor and Penang) running parishes, collaborating with the dioceses and immersing ourselves in the lives of God’s people in these places. In recent years, many of our vocations have come from Sabah, adding to the colour and tone of our Custody as our earlier vocations were from Singapore, Peninsula Malaysia and Sarawak. In fact, we celebrated on 16 April the Solemn Profession of two Sabahan friars.
Still, from time to time, I find myself asking two questions – Where did we come from and where are we going? We need to look at history to ground our purpose and see our historical trajectory in the bigger scheme of things, to take stock of the present, and set about “scrutinising the signs of the times” (Gaudium et Spes, 4). In this way, the friars can be relevant and authentic, creative and faithful at the same time.
To be faithful to the founding vision of the Franciscan presence in Singapore, we first need to enter the mind and heart of an Italian Franciscan Friar Gabriele Allegra, who was beatified in 2012.
It is because of Blessed Allegra that the first friar came to Singapore in 1957. While studying Missiology and Theology in Rome in the 1920s, his heart was stirred to bring Christianity to the Chinese people. Learning that there was no complete Chinese translation of the bible, his heart was moved to translate the bible into Chinese from the original Hebrew and Greek texts. The Studium Biblicum translation is considered by many to be thedefinitive Chinese Catholic Bible.
When communist ideology began gathering influence in South-east Asia in the 1950s, he proposed to Propaganda Fide (now, the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples) that a sociological centre be set up in Singapore to offer the Catholic Church’s Social Teachings as an alternative to communism. Approval of the centre resulted in an international team of friars coming to make this Studium Sociologicum (社會學硏 究社), later located at Jurong Road 83⁄4 mile, a reality. Blessed Allegra himself headed the social institute for three years, from 1961 to 1963.
Back to basics, I would say. Back to what the Franciscan Friars stand for – Fraternity and Minority. Being the Order of Friars Minor. Being a brother to all and not just that, but a lesser brother, one who is humble and poor, who never lords over others, who is subject to all creatures as St Francis exhorted us to be.
We have spread our missionary wings these several years, while our leadership has become “local”. Reading the signs of these COVID times, could we be invited to be more rooted in our spirituality and intentionality, to grow deeper in our relationships with self, fraternity and God?
I proposed to the friars that, during this year, we mull on building a culture of care and trust within our fraternity and focus on relationship especially where there is historical baggage. To dare to risk anew with the grace of the Holy Spirit and to offer mercy even when the brother never asked for it (cf. Francis’ Letter to a Minister). Only when our fraternities are steeped in God and mutual care and trust can we truly be fraternities- in-mission. This process isn’t as clear cut as setting up a new mission centre but it is part of the dream shared by our Lord, St Francis and the many other Christian missionaries of love.
Yes, time passes but dreams never do …
Peace and all good,
Friar Derrick Yap OFM