Saturday, January 21, 2012

Lessons from a poor sacristan

A tribute to Bernadette Lau

By now most parishioners of NBVM will know that their former sacristan, Mdm.Bernadette Lau’s case in the Labour Court regarding alleged unjust termination of her services by the church has been settled amicably. The out of court settlement spared our church of the embarrassment and the negative publicity would have created if the case did go on as scheduled.

Many old parishioners of NBVM will know Bernadette much better than me as she was serving the church as a sacristan under numerous priests for over 20 years. I only got to know her lately when she came to see me for advice after being unceremoniously forced to retire from her job on 21 October 2012 at the age of 67.A large number of parishioners felt she was unjustly sacked from her job which she carried out efficiently with great passion and dedication.

For those not familiar, a sacristan is an officer who is charged with the care of the sacristy, the church, and their contents. A sacristy is a room for keeping vestments (such as the alb and chasuble) and other church furnishings, sacred vessels, and parish records. The sacristy is also where the priest and attendants vest and prepare before the service.

Within the short time I knew Bernadette, I realised I have so much to learn from this simple old woman who many considered as just a church sweeper. She may be just a lowly paid and simple church worker with no formal education or position to boast about but she lived a life that is worthy of praise and appreciation. Some of her attributes that struck me were as follows.

1. Simplicity – She was very simple and down to earth person, simply dressed with no glamour of any sort. She appeared to be just another lowly paid worker with no airs about herself.

2. Courageous – This attribute which I and many parishioners admired most in her. She felt she has been treated unjustly and she wanted to prove her innocence but did not know how to go about it. With the advice of a few close friends who were old and pensioned, she managed to do what her employer did not anticipate. She was nobody without any high level contacts or family members whatsoever to help her but she did it all alone. She managed to find her way to meet the Labour Officer to file her complaint against her former employer who had great influence, power and money to meet any eventuality. Unfortunately the employer was none other than the church which she served loyally for over 20 years.

3. Diligent worker – All who know her say she used to be a very hard worker who did her job with great passion. She used to come to church on her motorbike as early as 5am to prepare for mass and only goes back home after all the meetings are over which can be as late as 10 or 11pm.Of course she used to grumble and times lose her temper when people refuse to leave quickly after mass or after meetings. Who wouldn’t if in her situation?

A friend close of her relates how she at times used her own money from her meagre salary to buy detergents to wash the items like chalice and vests used during mass. She did all that because she believed she was serving God and not just the priests who came and left.

4. Insists in working for her money – On being terminated many concerned parishioners went to her aid by giving her money which she flatly refused. Even the farewell dinner and a farewell gift that they wanted to give to show their empathy and appreciation was flatly turned down saying, “ I did not retire or resign voluntarily but was sacked. I am so sad and angry, why should I accept the dinner?”

Today when greed seemed to have taken control of our life, it was strange that a poor sacristan did not want anything free which she did not work for. She was willing to accept payment only for work she did will pay those who had helped her in some form. Just before Chinese New Year, she even left a small “angpow” for me as a token of appreciation for the little advice and moral support I offered and refused to come and take it back despite much coaxing.

5. Gratitude – She came many times just to thank me for the very small help I offered her. She also rang her friends many times to thank them for their assistance. Again this is a virtue that is badly lacking in many of us today. We take for granted those who came into our lives and played a role in making us what we are today.

Anyone with some interest in human relationship will be able to appreciate these virtuous qualities in Bernadette. Unfortunately her employer for whom she had worked for over twenty years failed to see and appreciate these good things in her. She was not only terminated without reason but refused any compensation for her subsequent maintenance. It is extremely sad that the employer was no ordinary person or institution but the Church.

Bernadette Lau may be just a sacristan or church sweeper but she has left a lasting impression in my heart by her integrity and righteousness which many in high positions lack. To me she is more Christ-like than many who claim to be so

Bernadette may not be our sacristan anymore but we will always be grateful for her services. Let us keep her in our prayers and hearts and be there in her times of need. We wish her every success in her new life. May God bless her with good health, peace and happiness for her umpteen years of dedicated service to Him.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Matching words with deeds

I refer to the Malaysiakini report, Bishop calls on PM to match words with deeds.

I salute Bishop Paul Tan for his courage to stand up for his principle even if it meant he had to go against those in power, including the Prime Minister of the country. I need such courage so do all of us who mean well for our country.

Prime Minister Najib Razak says a lot of comforting things but remains silent when it matters most. He has been silent even with the barrage of insults directed at others especially the Christians by those in his own camp. He claims to be moderate in words but has yet to prove it in his actions. Unless he speaks up against extremism within his own camp, how can he claim to be moderate? If only Najib can match his words with action, he will go down in history as the prime minister who stood for his principles.

Our nation faces a lot of uncertainties and dangers today especially posed by those with extremist views who claim they are “struggling” to defend the perceived loss of their rights. Who is threatening them and who are they struggling against? How can less than 10% of the population be a threat to the majority?

We congratulate Bishop Tan for being consistent in his fight for truth and against injustice. He not only preaches but also practices what he preaches, something rare today among leaders including the religious as well. He has proven himself as a role model not for Christians alone but all Malaysians who want justice done to the ordinary man on the street.

As Christians, in particular Catholics, we should emulate him in standing up for injustice in our own surroundings inside and outside the church. We cannot run away from the fact that following Jesus means much more than just attending church but to stand up for justice especially when it involves the less fortunate among us.

The important question to ask ourselves is whether we are willing to match our words with deeds, to practice what we preach and preach only what we practice.

While we admire Bishop Paul Tan for his relentless fight against corruption and injustice, we hope he can also look into the many problems that we are facing in our own church. Hope he with his brother bishops can address the large number of lay Catholics who are unhappy in the church for many reasons.

One of the major problems in our church today is the exodus of members and passivity of existing members as witnesses of Christ. It is sad to see so many born and bred Catholics who have been actively involved for many years leaving the church. Not only the nation is experiencing a brain drain, the church too is experiencing one. It may be timely for us to get to the root of this problem and seriously act to stop this exodus.

To my mind and in my experience this is basically due to the lack of dialogue and discussion. It is time to inculcate a culture of open discussion in a conducive environment of the various plans, projects and problems in a civil and peaceful manner. Are we willing to do that?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Pongal in the Catholic Church

Pongal in the Church

In many churches this Sunday, Pongal will be celebrated on a very grand sacle. The church will be decorated with traditional items like banana trees, leaves, kolam and so on. Milk will be boiled in earthen pots, allowed to spill over and Pongal rice will be cooked. The congregation will shout "pongolo pongal" when the milk spills over. Men and women coming for mass will be clad in colourful traditional Tamil attire. After mass there will be special "pongal games" and sumptuous meals.

In short it will be a day of celebrations and rituals to thank God for his rewards He bestowed upon us and our family. But do we need to go to such an extent of elaborate celebrations to thank God? I may be old fashioned and out-dated but is this the right way to thank God? Then why do we need the mass?

Pongal in NBVM

In our parish too, Pongal is being celebrated in a very large scale. The prime-time English mass is shifted to an earlier slot to make way for the celebration of Pongal, the harvest festival of the Tamils. Wouldn’t it be unfair to the non-Indians who are so used to attend the English mass?

So much time and money is being channelled to make this celebration a success. Wouldn't it be better to utilise the money help the parishioners in need? Shouldn’t the money be used to compensate a poor woman like our former sacristan, Bernadette Lau? Aren’t there many other desperate and impoverished parishioners who may need the money more urgently?

It is deeply disturbing that the Indians and Chinese keep celebrating their respective cultures in the Church, more so in-cooperating them into the Eucharistic service. By doing so not only the sanctity of the mass is lost but such activities continue to divide the already racially polarized congregation.

Yes, my dear parishioners, racism is very real in our Church and what is most disturbing is that our own priests are initiating, encouraging and promoting it. Witnessing all that is going on, I am beginning question whether Jesus really is in our church. Very, very sad!!!

The following is a brief write-up about Pongal for the benefit of the non-Indians.

Pongal – A Tamil thanksgiving Event

Malaysian Tamils celebrate Pongal on 15 January 2012.Thai Pongal, as it is called because it marks the beginning of the Tamil month of Thai, is a harvest festival originally celebrated by Tamils in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu and Sri Lanka.It was one of the most important festivals among peasants in villagers who tilled their land and reared animals.

Today it has evolved into a cultural festival of Tamils all over the world, including those who know nothing about farming. Pongal was traditionally dedicated to the Sun God Surya. Tamils thank the solar deity for the good harvest and consecrate the first grain to him

Pongal in Tamil means "boiling over or spill over." The boiling over of milk in the clay pot symbolizes material abundance for the household. Thai Pongal, celebrated at harvest time on the first day of the Tamil month of Thai, is traditionally intended to thank the Sun God and farmstead livestock that helped create the material abundance.

The saying "Thai Pirandhal Vazhi Pirakkum" meaning " the commencement of Thai paves the way for new opportunities" is often quoted regarding the Pongal festival. The festival usually occurs from January 13 — 15 i.e. the last day of the Tamil month Maargazhi to the third day of Thai.

In short Pongal celebration is a thanksgiving event for the abundant harvest in the preceding year.

Ponggal is celebrated for three consecutive days.

The first day it is celebrated for the harvested crops and shared with friends and relatives. The main feature of this festival is the boiling of milk in a clay pot until it overflows when the family members gathered round the pot shouting, ”Ponggale oh Ponggale” then add rice to it. They offer the pongal rice to Suria,the Sun God to thank him for the abundant harvest.

The second day known as Mattu Ponggal, cows are adored and given the offerings. This is the time when villages decorate the cows and also the elders seek God’s blessing for their children. The cows are given a bath, their horns painted and they are decorated with garlands.

And on the third day known as Kanni Ponggal is dedicated to young virgins. Young women pray for a good life and a dashing great husband. The young unmarried ladies wearing new clothes, gold and silver ornaments will have special prayers for their future marriage. Virginity is a sign of purity to which great importance is attached by the peasants.

Significance of boiling over of spilt milk

The spilling of milk means prosperity and if the milk spills as the sun rises, it is a good sign for the family.

Half of the boiled milk is then scooped for offering to the departed parents and ancestors and remainder for the family and friends to drink. Then sweetened rice is added for cooking. As the sweetened rice is about to cook, a spoonful of ghee is added. Once the sweetened rice is ready, an offering is made to the ancestors and the remainder shared with neighbors.

Ponggal and its relevance to us

Traditionally Ponggal used to be a harvest festival of peasants in villagers, who plough their land, plant crops and rear herds of cattle. Today it is being celebrated by everyone, even those residing in urban areas in high rise buildings and who have nothing in common with those villagers to whom pongal was such a meaningful festival. To many today in urban areas Pongal has become a symbol of their culture and tradition which they want to uphold for fear they may soon be forgotten by the future generations.

Pongal and Christianity

When we were children, in the sixties and seventies, we never celebrated Pongal as we were told it is a strictly a Hindu festival, whereby the Sun and Cow were being worshipped as gods. But today after 30-40 years, the Church seem to have taken a totally different stance. It encourages its followers to actively celebrate the festival, as it contends that is more of a Tamil culture, which all Tamils must uphold. Why this change by our church?

A festival that the church forbade some 30 years ago is being actively celebrated in the church today. In fact in many parishes, it has taken over the Eucharistic celebrations of mass on Sunday. Why such over-enthusiasm? Is it right to incorporate an ethnic culture totally into our Sunday mass attended by many races to the extent of driving away many to other churches for Sunday mass? Wouldn’t this massive infiltration of cultural elements into mass distract the minds of the congregation away from Christ who should be focus of our attention during mass?

The mass is a very solemn celebration where we should seriously listen to the word of God, witness the transformation of His body and blood, subsequently receive Him in Holy Communion and then go forth to share His love with others. Other cultural activities, singing, dancing and various performances should be held outside the mass so as not to allow them to divert our focus from Christ who should be centre of our Eucharistic celebrations.

Tamil culture and Hinduism

Pongal had been celebrated much before Christianity came to India. Obviously looking at the way had been celebrated, it is obvious that it is basically a Hindu festival. It is easy to understand that as the Tamils were all Hindus and the vast majority of them continue to be so till today. Tamil culture is so inter-twined with Hinduism that it is difficult to separate one from the other.

Being traditionally a Hindu festival, is it wrong for Tamil Christians to celebrate? Is it wrong to thank the Sun, the greatest gift of God to man, without which no life would never exist? Is it wrong to appreciate and adore the cow, which provided for all the needs of the peasants?

Regardless of one’s religion I see why we cannot adore the marvels of God and pay tribute to His creations that provide us with all our daily needs. While it is not wrong for Christians to celebrate Pongal, we should not overdo things so as to mask the presence of Christ at mass which all excessive cultural activities do.

While we go about celebrating Pongal as our right, we must be aware that there have been fears expressed by fellow Hindus that this change of mindset of the Church in going all out to adopt Pongal and certain other cultural practices by the Indian Christians may be part of its tactic of "inculturation,” aimed at getting Christianity to appear less Western and more Indian thereby more appealing to them to embrace it. It is our duty to allay such fears among our fellow Indians from the Hindu faith as it would be morally wrong to convert someone from one religion to another.

Thanking Mother Nature for the abundant harvest that gave the peasants and their families good life is indeed a noble one. Sharing their harvest with neighbors is of greater nobility which we should all emulate regardless of our own faith or culture.

We should take Ponggal as an opportunity to thank the Almighty for the abundant blessings we received either overtly or in disguise. Often these blessings come in disguise, which we only realize much later when we overcome the various crisis that come our way. It is in sharing our blessings with our neighbor will we be rewarded with more.