Being Catholic, Imaging Christ and Belisi

Cecilia Tan, 20 April 2023

Elizabeth: Tell me a bit about your own ministry journey.

Cecilia: My ministry journey is unseparated from the person I am, from what I understand as the call to live out my Christian faith in the best way possible. I became cognisant of this from an early age, as a young girl growing up in post-colonial Singapore in the sixties and seventies. Those were turbulent times. National, global, and most certainly ecclesial issues intersected. Our deeply Catholic family was not untouched by these events. Vatican II felt like a sudden unexpected force with its accompanying mystery, confusion, excitement and for me, a string of curious questions. Churches were renovated, communion rails were removed, English replaced Latin, and women, including my mother, began to discard their veils!

As a curious young girl, what I gathered then, was ‘times they were a-changing!’ Unbeknown to me then, the turbulence of the 60s and 70s post-colonial Singapore seeded a life-long desire to understand what being ‘Catholic’ meant. I realised early on the importance and impact of my choices and responsibilities as they relate to faith and life in general, due to my upbringing. Through observing my socially conscious father – a man of deep faith, justice and conviction, and my mother of quiet yet faith-filled courage and prayer, my education in the fundamentals of what being Catholic means took root. The fact of our obligation to one another by the sheer fact that we all originated from the same divine source, was something I ‘picked up’ from my parents and how they responded to those in need regardless of race or religion. Racial riots were common in the early sixties. Service to others, a strong sense of community within and beyond Church, regular participation and involvement in liturgy and prayer, a wholesome family life, and a Catholic education were crucial to my being and becoming. Rather than dissipate, my sense of and desire to understand genuine ministry, vocation, and liturgy grew stronger with time.

Accordingly, liturgy became for me, more than participation in a formulaic public ritual, an obligation to fulfil. In seeking and discovering the underlying meaning and purpose of worship, I discovered beauty, healing, a sense of being, and a sense of the Divine calling me to truly be ‘priest, prophet and royal.’ Now I am committed to others having a similar discovery, albeit through the particularities of their own lives. How that call is expressed takes on many dimensions. I am not drawn to ordination for myself. Nonetheless in understanding the deep desire for good, beauty, and love I believe it would be arrogant to deny other women and men who are passionately called to ordination. I am committed to the collaborative process of shifting horizons towards reinstating women as deacons – a reality right up to the Middle Ages when it was abolished. Apart from desire as call and response, there is a deeper theological question to consider: In denying the diaconate to women are we, as Church, stating that ‘women cannot image Christ?’ [NCR, 16 Dec 2022] since the deacon is ‘constituted a living icon of Christ the servant within the Church.’ []

Also, if the fundamental belief is that all image Christ, then limiting ordination as a male prerogative, insults the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, while conveying a distorted message about God.

Elizabeth: Tell me about an experience of celebrating liturgy that was very meaningful with a community ‘on the margins’.

Cecilia: One recent meaningful liturgical celebration with a community on the margins took place this year in Wewak, PNG, where I had the opportunity to deliver an intensive theological course to women religious, a marginalised group by virtue of a lack of access to theological education. The marginalisation has to be seen within the context of a complex, clannish and/or tribal culture, one built around Kastom. This issue warrants a separate conversation.

Cecilia presenting in Wewak, Papua New Guinea

The liturgy at the end of the course began with the beating of the garramut, a traditional instrument used to summon a community. (This act of summoning is normally officiated by the chief.) The liturgy essentially followed the general shape of the Mass, overlayed with rich local symbolism while conveying the essential meaning of our common baptism into Christ’s mission and how as women we are ‘wonderfully made.’ As we read and prayed over scripture, and shared stories of pain and trauma, of forgiveness and transformation, we passed around the tanget (red native plant acknowledging the authority of the person who spoke while holding the tanget). Wesang songs of lament, praise, and celebration with little inhibition, with spontaneous harmony. Being an all-women group helped. Such was the testament to the natural gifts, faith and spirituality of my Melanesian sisters and, as I discovered over my time in PNG, their people in general.

The tanget plant

The bilum, the intricately woven womb-shaped bag, central to Melanesian culture and life, was another dominant symbol magnifying the reality and truth of Melanesian women’s experiences. Gifts were exchanged, and gratitude was expressed followed by a feast. The broad smiles, the warm embraces, the laughter, and the promise of support the sisters made to each other, were signs of how meaningful liturgy integrates real-life experiences of marginalization, spirituality, and faith with trying to live authentic Christian lives. The opportunity to be freely themselves demonstrates how liturgy, as prayer ‘passes through tangible mediations: Sacred Scripture, the Sacraments, liturgical rites, the community. In Christian life, the corporeal and material sphere cannot be disregarded, because in Jesus Christ it became the way of salvation. We could say that we should pray with the body too: the body enters into prayer.’ [Pope Francis, Catechesis on prayer-23 Praying the liturgy 3 Feb, 2021]. On this occasion, we surely did!

Because the celebration was so deeply embodied, and incarnated, its effects overflowed into deep, genuine friendships; the courage to take on leadership roles, a more grounded understanding and a thirst for theological education amidst personal, communal, social, cultural, and religious constraints. The sisters realised they could draw from ‘Belisi’: their concept of reconciliation and harmony with cosmic consequences as informing eschatological hope. Similarly, “yu bilong mi, mi bilong yu” expressed the fulfilment, the meaning of restorative justice, liberation whenever hearts are open to God’s Spirit, or are able to declare acceptance of their own beings and those of other abused, violated, traumatised siblings, not least their own. “We will make it!” proclaimed a sister who throughout the course was one of the quietest voices in class. Her remarkable strength, demonstrated by her personal recounting of tragic violence within her family, clearly demonstrated the power of this liturgy summing up the experiences of the course.

As for me, I draw inspiration and hope from these women, whom I have come to dearly love. My commitment to them continues in my work. It is from them and our common experience of learning, praying and celebrating together, that has become another source of hope, inspiration and courage. I now return to the question and its implications: “Can women image Christ?” From this particular experience of liturgy on the margins, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Biographical information about Cecilia at the University of Divinity website

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