This year’s parish event planned by Fr Martin Arlando, parish priest of the Church of Divine Mercy, Penang (CDM) was to organize a pilgrimage of parishioners to four local less well-known churches in the Diocese. The churches chosen were ones with deep historical backgrounds related to the early growth of the Catholic faith in this part of Penang. The four churches were the Church of the Holy Name of Mary, Church of St Anthony of Padua, Church of St Joseph and Church of Our Lady of Good Health. The primary purpose of this pilgrimage was to give the pilgrims a quick course in local Church history, enabling them to appreciate the opportunities that were being provided by the Diocese to help in caring for the faithful and lastly, to compare the differences of each church in their way of catering to the needs of the people they serve.
The journey started in CDM with Fr Martin asking the pilgrims to focus their prayers on a single person or persons whom they needed especially to pray for. The recitation of the rosary began with the first decade. Subsequently, a decade was recited on the journey to each church also accompanied with a reflection question. Three bus loads arrived at the Church of the Holy Name of Mary, Permatang Tinggi, to be greeted by the parish priest there, Fr Augustine Wong. At the short briefing given by Fr Augustine, it was learned that the Church was built to cater to the largely Chinese community who came to work in the plantations around that place. The Church is nicknamed in Chinese as the “Church on the hill ” as it is built on a small sandy hill. The statute of Our Lady in the church is distinctly Chinese as she is dressed in pink, rather the usual white or blue. The church presently caters to about 1000+ parishioners. As the premises is small, plans have been made and some funds have been raised for a new RM6 million church to be built adjoining it. This cost will be reduced once they harvest some of the quality white sand on the land which the present church stands.
The Church of St Joseph in Bagan Serai was the second stop on the pilgrimage. Fr Arulnathan Joseph, the parish priest there was on hand to welcome the visitors. It was indeed a meaningful visit as the church was celebrating the feast of it’s patron saint. Mid-day mass was celebrated by Fr Martin with Fr Arul concelebrating. In his homily, Fr Martin related a story where a priest once asked the members of his congregation what saint’s relic would they most desire to obtain and why. The most significant reply came from one who said he would like to have a vial of the sweat from the brow of St Joseph. This was because this was produced as a result of his vocation of a carpenter. It represented the efforts he had put into his responsibility of a husband and father of the Lord Jesus. Fr Martin also mentioned that the Christian outlook on work had three facets. The first is that any occupation is a Vocation. Secondly, it represents Stewardship to execute our responsibilities to the best of our ability. Lastly, it is one of Service. To able able to serve others through our talents and energy. Fr also mentioned that Pope Pius XII had designated 1 May as the feast day of St Joseph, the Worker, in recognition of all working people. He said that there is very little mention of St Joseph in the bible except in the beginning of the Gospel of St Luke. This leads some to wonder what qualities did this saint possess. The story of the life of Jesus is the reflection of the things St Joseph did as a father to Jesus. The qualities of strength in times of adversity, loyalty to God and his mother even to the last and to be an advocate to the marginalized, poor and helpless. At the end of mass Fr Martin said a touching prayer regarding the palms of our hands. They are the gift from the Lord to enable us to seek a living and also to be an instrument to reach out to help others in service.
The third visit was to the Church of St Anthony of Padua, Nibong Tebal. Fr Arul mentioned that this was one of the oldest churches in the diocese of Penang, built in 1891. It catered to the Catholic Indian workers from India who come to work in the surrounding plantations. There were also plans to build a hall on the large piece of land occupied by the church. Fr mentioned that nobody lost anything in this church. If they left behind a personal item, it would remain where it was, until the owner returned to redeem it. People prayed for many things to St Anthony. Jokingly he mentioned some even prayed for lost wives to return. The Church is also a stop for many pilgrims during the feast of St Anthony where thousands of pilgrims camp around the church grounds. Many even gave gifts items of personal jewellery.
The last stop on the pilgrimage was to the Church of Our Lady of Good Health, Parit Buntar. The Divine Mercy chaplet was recited and Fr Martin reminded the pilgrims to pray for the person they had in mind initially. He asked them to pray not only for physical but spiritual healing. One pilgrim remarked that focusing on the other person helped her move away from distractions and allowed the Lord to answer two of her prayers that day. She also said that the short and continuous prayer sessions on the bus between the trips to the churches were beautiful and meaningful. It also gave adequate time for personal reflection.
The pilgrimage achieved its purpose of being an eye-opener to many. It showed the wisdom of the Catholic Church in earlier obtaining large parcels of land for future expansion. The preservation of the structural old buildings proved a challenge to the parish priests in those churches and the response of the faithful in safeguarding these emblems for their children. Many went away feeling a sense of pride of our Catholic heritage in Penang and with a silent resolution to make a return visit to these churches on their own.
Dr Ivan Filmer
3rd May, 2018