SINGAPORE - At 6pm on Saturday (Dec 11), bells in all 32 Catholic churches across the island rang in unison, sounding the close of year-long celebrations commemorating the Roman Catholic Church's 200th anniversary in Singapore.
Father Laurent Marie Joseph Imbert is believed to be the first Catholic missionary here, having landed on Singapore's shores on Dec 11, 1821.
Four days later, he wrote to Bishop Esprit Marie Joseph Florens, the Apostolic Vicar of Siam who had sent him to Singapore: "I have reached Singapore on 11th instant, and have visited according to your Lordship's request the Catholics of this new settlement. There are only 12 or 13 in number and seem to lead a wretched life."
The Catholic Church here has since grown beyond 300,000-strong, and has made its presence and contributions to Singapore felt.
Reverend Father Valerian Cheong, co-chair of the Catholic200SG Festival that began on Dec 4, said the Church has contributed to Singapore in four key areas: serving the poor, education, healthcare and religious harmony.
For instance, in the area of healthcare, he cited Nurses' Day, celebrated here on Aug 1 annually to commemorate the day that nuns from the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus began nursing duties in the general hospital at the Sepoy Lines in 1885.
The nuns had answered a call for nurses to support the work of doctors then.
The week-long Catholic200SG Festival, which included activities such as tours and performances, ended on Saturday with a concurrent mass across all the Catholic churches here.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong and Inter-Religious Organisation president Rajesh R Shah attended the anniversary mass at the Cathedral of the Good Shepherd on Saturday.
Mr Rajesh said the Catholic Church's social outreach efforts show that while Catholics are firm in their faith, they readily serve others regardless of race or religion.
"When they see a need, they stand up and serve," he said.
Father Cheong said the Church has been working together with the Government on many things.
"I would say we share the same aspirations as the Government - to raise the level of education and the standards of healthcare in this country. And we have the same goal as the Government - to shape responsible and values-oriented citizens for a better Singapore."
The Church enjoys a good relationship with the authorities, built through regular dialogues, he said. "On certain issues where we differ, we have always been able to provide our deepest concerns openly."
These issues include abortion or other matters concerning the importance of human identity or values, he said.
"We have all the channels available to us from the Government to express our concerns," he said, adding that the Church is an active participant in policy discussions.
In his homily on Saturday, Archbishop William Goh said Catholics were thankful that even though the Government is secular, it has been respectful and encouraging of religions, maintaining neutrality to all.
He encouraged Catholics to continue to build a gracious, compassionate and inclusive society, one that cares especially for the marginalised. "We need to be more generous in sharing what we have with those who have not," he said.
Father Cheong said he hopes that as the Catholic Church moves into the next century of its history, it will continue to remain relevant to society, and that it will be in touch with the ever-changing value systems on issues such as family life.
"I dream for the Church of the future to be a beacon, one that guides people, values and families in society," he said.