Archbishop Goh on a mission to draw Catholics back to the fold

People have been at the heart of Archbishop William Goh's ministry since he took over the reins as head of Singapore's Catholic Church last May.

A year into his term, the 56-year-old told The Straits Times in an interview last Friday that a key priority is to draw Catholics back to the Church.

Pews may be filled every weekend - with worshippers spilling onto the aisles - but many are migrant Catholics.

"We have a strange situation in the Church," he said.

Many of the 100,000 Catholics who attend church regularly are migrants from countries such as India and the Philippines. The archbishop said he is looking to draw local Catholics back to the Church.

He is particularly concerned about young Singaporean Catholics who have dropped out in their teens.

Rather than pursuing material wealth, he believes many are searching for the meaning of life. The Church should be with them on this journey, he said.

"The Church should never stifle the young. If they have left, it means that we did not give them the space to grow," he said in an interview at his office and residence in Victoria Street.

To woo them back, he plans to train more youth leaders to relate to their needs.

Earlier this year, for instance, he set up the Catholic Theological Institute of Singapore which has started to train about 100 lay people in theology.

Mr Arthur Goh, 42, the academic director of the institute, said the archbishop sees the potential for the Church to grow through "human agency".

He said: "The archbishop has a lot of fire and has been concerned with internal reform and enlivening the community." Archbishop Goh's dedication to the Church comes in part from his late mother, Madam Lucy Ng, whose devotion to Mother Mary inspired him to start training for priesthood after national service.

According to a previous interview, he would accompany her to Novena Church services when he was just four. While his friends played, he was drawn to prayer.

Archbishop Goh was ordained in 1985 and served at the Church of the Holy Cross in Clementi and St Anne's Church in Sengkang for several years.

For 21 years, he taught at the St Francis Xavier Major Seminary where he later became its rector. He was also director of the Catholic Spirituality Centre for almost a decade.

He started spiritual retreats which he still conducts.

A well-loved figure known for his passionate sermons, he took over last year from Archbishop Emeritus Nicholas Chia.

Father Adrian Anthony, 71, of the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd in Queen Street, said of the new leader: "I find him approachable and ready to listen. He's trying his best to make everybody feel that they have a stake in the Church."

Over the past six months, for instance, Archbishop Goh has met priests over meals and made pastoral visits to parishes to interact with parishioners and ministry leaders to better understand the ground.

There are about 160 priests who take care of the 28 parishes across the country.

Archbishop Goh empathises with the priests, who take a vow of obedience and celibacy, and are expected to be a jack of all trades. "They are not saints and suffer from fatigue and frustration. Many need to be recharged, reaffirmed and appreciated for their years of service," he said.

In the past year, the archbishop has also focused his energies on restructuring, appointing new leaders and setting up new church offices, including the Office for the New Evangelisation.

The evangelisation office's role involves spreading the message of Christianity in creative ways, for instance via social media. Also in the works is a one-stop social services centre at the upcoming Agape Village in Toa Payoh.

This will streamline and match the services of 23 of Caritas' affiliates - which include family, children and youth organisations and welfare services - with the needs of the public. Caritas is the Church's social welfare arm.

The leader of Singapore's Catholic community is also setting up a Family Life Commission to strengthen the institution of family "even as the world tries to redefine marriage".

The commission will promote and coordinate pro-family activities such as marriage preparation classes and counselling for couples. While improved church governance is desirable, people must always come first, the archbishop said.

"I don't sacrifice people for ambition - passion must come with compassion and people must feel loved and accepted."

This extends beyond the Catholic community, said Archbishop Goh who, like Pope Francis, has called for tolerance towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people, as well as divorcees and people who have had abortions.

While he maintains that the family - comprising heterosexual couples with children - is the basic building block of society, he said: "We need to be gentle, not judgmental because people are fragile."

Moral laws are ideals but the reality of the situation is that many are struggling, he said.

"We must love and embrace them with truth and dialogue... and then they will find real happiness."


This article was published on May 19 in The Straits Times.

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