I was sitting on my chair, waiting for the priest, Carmelite Father Thomas Lim, to come celebrate Mass. The congregation was small, a handful of elderly folk. I glanced around to the back, where a lady in red was anxiously awaiting the arrival of the celebrant.
Lily was her name, and she worked in the Society of St. Vincent De Paul at the Catholic Welfare Services building. She was also in charge of the St. Vincent Home in the next building, and it was the residents of the Home that made up the congregation.
An occasional “Our Father in Heaven” punctuated the silence, and faded into mumbles. The elderly lady closest to me was reciting the rosary as best as she could. Opposite me was an Indian lady, who had done her hair up with hairpins, and wrapped her grey mane under a black veil.
The lady reciting her rosary turned to me all of a sudden. “Drink water,” she said.
I wondered to myself, “Did she want to drink water?”
“I drink water just now,” she motioned to her mouth. “Can take Communion?”
“Should be can lah,” Lily chipped in before I could reply. “Old already can lah.”
“Last time I learn Catechism, must fast from the night before then can receive Communion,” the elderly lady recalled. She seemed to think that times in the Catholic Church have changed.
“Water and medicine are allowed,” I reassured her. “Water and medicine are allowed.”
She seemed contented with that reply, and sat back down in her chair. “Our Father in Heaven…” she continued.
Not long after, Father Thomas Lim arrived. “These are our residents,” introduced Lily as Father Thomas peeked in. He stole a glance at me, and quipped, “This must be your youngest resident.”
“I was just thinking about you this morning,” he said as he entered the room, mentioning an advertisement he had sent to my colleague Elaine. The advertisement was for the upcoming Feast of Sts. Peter & Paul to be held at his parish on Jun 29. He wanted me to write an article on the feast day because “an advertisement is an advertisement” and “you need someone to write an article about it”.
There goes my cover.
I had actually come to visit a friend who is now staying at St. Vincent’s Home. I’m unsure as to how she came to stay here, but I didn’t want to ask. I’d just come to visit her as I used to before.
Fortunately, it didn’t seem to make much of a difference as Mass was just about to begin. Sister Rosalind, a nice and gentle old lady herself seemed very much at home with the residents as she counted, for the third time, the number of people receiving Holy Communion.
Fiddling with the lighter – the kind that you use the light your stove – she struggled to find the ‘on’ switch until Lily took over and lit the candles. Lily handed the lighter back to Sister Rosalind who continued to fiddle with it, this time struggling to ‘turn off’ the lighter.
“Automatic off, Sister!” called Lily. “You let go your finger and the flame no more.”
As Father Thomas looked on, I wondered what he might have been thinking. Celebrating Mass for the elderly and with the elderly can be quite a humbling experience, especially when we look at them and see in their faces what we will one day become.
I found myself thinking of the last person who spoke to me about liturgical abuses, and I wondered how he would have fared at this Mass. Would he be able to concentrate on the Mass and see Christ in the people around, or would he have been so focused on what the priest and congregation were doing wrongly that he would miss Christ’s presence?
In the words of Father Michael Arro, who quite recently gave a session on liturgy to the people attending the current DAFF (Diploma in Adult Faith Formation) deepening course at the Singapore Pastoral Institute: “Liturgy is made for men, not men for the liturgy.”
When it came to the breaking of the bread, I noted with amusement that despite Sister Rosalind’s efforts to get the number of hosts right, there were leftovers because she did not count on the breaking of large hosts into smaller pieces.
It was a simple fare, but one of the best Masses I’ve attended this year. What made it good was the people. Even if some were reciting the rosary during Mass, even if some didn’t participate because they couldn’t read, even if some had to go to the toilet in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer, even if some were kneeling while others were standing, the Mass was good and the liturgy was good because Christ was truly present.
That, after all, is what liturgy is really about – a gathering of people who worship the Lord together in a certain way.
(I originally wrote this post for my work blog, but I’ve not been updating that blog for some time, so I decided to post this here.)