Building God's Kingdom together
Many people including past parish priests and parishioners regard NBVM as a notorious parish with many people out to cause trouble and problems for the parish priests who have worked there. In fact since I came here 17 years ago an unusually large number of priests (six to eight I guess) have come and gone and yet there is still no stability in the administration of the parish. Even at present there is a lot of unhappiness among the people with the new parish priest who has been here just over 6 months now.The question is who is wrong, the priests or the people?
NBVM is a large parish with approximately 8,000 parishioners but it is poorly developed physically, spiritually and intellectually. Many blame the priests for being incompetent, others certain long-serving individuals with ulterior motives who wrongly influence the priest to take sides and there are those contribute their failure to the people of Butterworth who are generally considered to be trouble makers.
The majority of parishioners agree that the parish needs revamp to keep with the rapidly changing society. Instead of blaming any individual or groups for the mess we are in, as that would only cause more ill feelings and hatred, it would be better for us to understand why our parish does not seem to move forward like others. The tremendous social and demographic changes that have taken place over the last 2 decades or so on mainland Penang especially in Butterworth has resulted in a very diverse population with regards to socio-economic status, literacy rate and standard of living.
Butterworth has become a complex regional industrial centre with the people coming from all walks of life – manual workers, unskilled and skilled factory workers, executives and professionals. To add to the complexity there has been an influx of large numbers of foreign workers into our factories and plantations who are aliens to our culture, language and norms. With these changes it is only natural for the NBVM parish in Butterworth to reflect the extreme variation of the population demography on mainland Penang.
Twenty years ago Butterworth was considered a “cowboy town”. The population then comprised mainly of factory workers but today there are many officers from the administrative, executive and professional groups as well. Many of us including the parish priests of NBVM underestimate the demands of this increasing maturity and literate class of parishioners.
In many of the other urban and rural parishes the population is more homogenous socioeconomically, with either the lower, middle or upper social class predominating. However in Butterworth the population is widely heterogeneous with a mixture of all three groups. Furthermore there is a large ethnic and language diversity. The expectations of each group are very different from another. This wide variation in the population makes it difficult to manage as it would be impossible to please all groups at the same time. Managing a community comprising diverse socioeconomic, language and ethnic groups of people demands additional experience and skills than managing a more homogenous group.
I am afraid that our priests especially the younger ones are not equipped with the special skills to handle this diverse crowd. What is most frustrating is that many of them are so impatient and arrogant and refuse to listen to the people who are older, wiser and more experienced in life. There is little or no respect for the elders in the parish which is indeed very very sad.
Quoting from the medical profession to which I belong, a doctor is trained to consider his patients as most important and never to blame them for his mistakes however difficult and troublesome the patients may be. Similarly if our priests regard the parishioners as most important then a lot of the problems would have never arisen in the first place. The biggest setback is our priests tend to alienate themselves from the very people whom they are supposed to guide and serve. They adopt a confrontational attitude towards the people who dissent and ‘rebel’ which is never the way to deal with fellow humans. What is needed is a conciliatory environment for dialogue, discussion and even debate to solve the problems that are bound to surface from time to time.
The way out of our problems in NBVM is to revamp the system of administration. The priest is the undisputed head of the parish but the PPC must be given greater independence and power to manage finance and the day to day running of the parish. Gone are the days when the priest can manage the parish single-handedly. Today society is more sophisticated and complex, so are its problems, to be handled by the priest alone. He must delegate the non-spiritual work to the PPC which must be independent and more professionally run.
The PPC like in the old days when it was called the Parish Council must be duly elected by the people at the Parish Assembly. Its chairman and other main office bearers must be people of high calibre, integrity and well qualified. At present the PPC is powerless and ineffective to handle the various problems. The role of the PPC should not be restricted to organising feast days, anniversaries, parties, family day and other such “entertainment” events. It must cater for an overall development on the spiritual and intellectual aspects of the people to meet the many new challenges that face us as Christians living among a larger non-Christian community.
We should be addressing more important issues like declining Christian education, declining morality, increasing divorce and breakup of family units, declining influence of the Church in the lives of the people and so on.
We should formulate programmes to help those in need in our parish like those with spiritual, medical, financial, marital, social and psychological problems. In short we must, as the Church, identify with the problems of the people and not alienate ourselves from their plight. To do this we must have a parish council which is dynamic, capable and fully independent working hand in hand with the parish priest who should be able to advice and guide the council and not dictate policies according to his whims and fancy.
Today the reputation of the Church and our faith is being challenged by the people of the world. We are being challenged by non-Christians, other Christian denominations, non-believers, new scientific discoveries and of late by atheists. If we continue to be obsessed with the rituals of the past without accommodating the new technological and scientific advancements there is no way we are going to stop the exodus of our people as our religion would be then become more and more irrelevant to them. Christianity is not a historical religion which just commemorates events of the past but a dynamic faith that is relevant to the lives of the people now and for ages to come.
In short we, the clergy and laity, should put our minds and hearts together, pool our resources and energy and explore ways to bring Christ into the lives of people and not drive Him away by our un-Christ-like attitude and behaviour that is unfortunately becoming more prevalent in our Catholic communities all over.