Cardinal Goh of Singapore: ‘Deep encounter with Jesus’ is key to passing on the faith

Cardinal William Goh The spiritual shepherd of the Church in Singapore is Cardinal William Goh, archbishop since early 2013 and a cardinal since 2022. | Credit: Sean Boyce/EWTN News

Pope Francis recently announced his intention to travel to Southeast Asia in September to visit Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, East Timor, and Singapore. The island nation of Singapore is one of the most ethnically and religiously diverse regions in Asia and is home to about 395,000 Catholics. The small but strategically important nation also has the highest urban density in Asia but is ranked as the country with the highest quality of life. Like everywhere else, it also faces the threats of secularism and relativism and a loss of traditional values, especially a commitment to family and respect for the elderly. 

The spiritual shepherd of the Church in Singapore is Cardinal William Goh, archbishop since early 2013 and a cardinal since 2022. He sat down in his residence in Singapore on April 19 with Matthew Bunson, EWTN News’ vice president and editorial director, to discuss the Holy Father’s upcoming trip, the College of Cardinals, the synodal process, and the challenges and opportunities for the Church in Asia.

In the following edited transcript, Goh, 66, observes that “most of us” in the College of Cardinals “do not know each other,” a disadvantage for a body that will one day be called upon to choose a successor to Pope Francis. The cardinal also suggests the need for “another level” to the Synod on Synodality beyond its second and final assembly this October — namely a bishops-only synod. The existing synod, which includes bishops, clergy, and laypeople, “cannot really be considered a theological dogmatic synod,” he says, because not all of the delegates are theologically trained.

Pope Francis speaks to Archbishop William Seng Chye Goh (left) after he elevated him to cardinal during a consistory to create 20 new cardinals on Aug. 27, 2022, at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Credit: Alberto Pizzoli
Pope Francis speaks to Archbishop William Seng Chye Goh (left) after he elevated him to cardinal during a consistory to create 20 new cardinals on Aug. 27, 2022, at St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican. Credit: Alberto Pizzoli

Your Eminence, I’m so grateful for your time. I know that you’re a very busy man, even busier now with the announcement that Pope Francis is going to be visiting Singapore. I’d like to start with a question about yourself. You are a native Singaporean?

Yes.

Could you talk about your faith journey, especially leading to the priesthood, to being a bishop, and now to being a member of the College of Cardinals?

My faith journey is really from hindsight. When I look at my life, it’s really a faith-filled journey, but truly a grace of God. My family is not extremely religious, except perhaps for my mother. But when I was young, being an introvert, instead of joining my fellow classmates to play before class, I would go to the church to pray the rosary, at the age of 7. At the age of 12, I was bringing the Divine Office, although I didn’t know what it was all about. And then I joined the altar servers. I was also in the Crusaders. And then we started the Rosary Club, where 100 young people would come every evening in the school. … During the recess, they would come to pray the rosary, 60 of them; instead of going for their recess, for their food, they came to pray. And then later on, I was very much attracted to this vocation, and I joined the seminary; and then I was ordained, and then I was assistant priest for a few years, and then they sent me to Rome for further studies. [When] I came back, I taught in the seminary for 22 years. 

I held all the different positions in the seminary, from dean of studies right up to rector. That was my last position, and then I was appointed bishop. But parallel to what I was doing, I was also appointed as the spiritual director of the Catholic Spirituality Center; this was the Charismatic Renewal. So I’m very much in the renewal movement. And so I conducted conversion-experience retreats. This will be the 60th session I’ve been conducting, and one retreat is about five days. 

.... So my own conversion experience, I must say, came about because I conducted the conversion-experience retreat, because I came to really be in touch with the sufferings of people, the real life, the struggles as Catholics; because during that retreat, they all make, I always call [it] “deathbed confession.” They are properly prepared for confession, and it is really heartwarming, and it changed my whole perspective on life, very different from my life in the seminary. As a professor, you are always teaching, you are always reading, and it is more theoretical; but, here, it really helps me to put theology into practice. On hindsight, really, when I look back at my life, God has always been guiding me.

How did you learn that you had been named a member of the College of Cardinals?

Just like all the other cardinals, because [of] Pope Francis, his way of announcement at the Angelus. And so somebody sent me an SMS, “Your name has been mentioned.” I couldn’t be bothered, you know; I was so busy preparing a homily. Then a few more SMS messages came in. Then I realized…

You had no idea that this was coming, obviously. What has the experience been like to be a member of the college, with all of the responsibilities, but that particular relationship with the Diocese of Rome?

Well, certainly as a cardinal, we have a greater responsibility to the universal Church. But so far, I’ve just attended only two consistories and one meeting because I belong to, I’m a member of the Dicastery for Family and Life. That is the connection so far. So I think to be chosen as a cardinal, and I think what Pope Francis has been doing, I mean, it’s a good idea. … The Church should be inclusive, to be universal. We have cardinals from all over the world. But I think the difficulty, the challenge would be getting the cardinals together to know each other well, especially when the time comes for voting for the pope for the conclave. That would be necessary. But, presently, I think most of us do not know each other and not all speak Italian, as well. So I think that area of rapport among the cardinals would be necessary for greater communion.

You mentioned Pope Francis. He’s coming to Singapore. What does his visit here mean? I know that John Paul II was here very briefly in 1986. First, what was that experience like? And what are your hopes for Francis’ visit?

Well, Francis is always popular with many of our Catholics, and I think he is a beacon of hope, a beacon of mercy and compassion. That is his forte, really, to try to continue the work of Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Benedict. The theme of evangelization is very dear to the heart of Pope Francis, but his way of evangelization is really to proclaim the joy of the Gospel, which includes welcoming people, being with the poor, with the marginalized. So, in that sense, he will be able to promote greater unity and strengthen the faith of our Catholics and also to inspire people of other faiths, that the Church is not inward-looking, but we are actually at the service of humanity. So I believe that his coming will certainly not just inspire and renew the faith of our Catholics, but also people who listen to him and people who are very appreciative of Pope Francis. In fact, the religious, the non-Catholic religious, leaders here, they are all very appreciative of Pope Francis, and they speak highly of him.

We’re reaching the conclusion of this long process of synodality. I know that you attended the Synod of Bishops last October. What was that experience like?

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What I like about that synod was the retreat and the small-group sharing — in that group sharing, we truly were able to journey with each other, listen to each other, without judgment, and accompany each other, especially when we are among bishops. It’s much easier because we understand our own struggles and difficulties and challenges and also aspirations. That’s the good thing about the synod. And I think that is the way, not just for the universal Church, but also for the particular Church, local Church, that we need to listen to, journey with each other. I think that is very helpful, so that there will be a greater understanding and communion between the clergy and the laity, so that we walk as one, so that we will truly be coming together as one Church.

But the synod, I think that, for me, is really great. That is the most important thing. I benefit from the synod. But when you have a plenary assembly where everybody is giving intervention [talks], that becomes a little bit more sensitive, because we are not able to be as open or direct as you wish to be … for fear that you might offend people who have other views.

So it needs a lot of courage to state what you need to say and be open about it. But I suppose there is also a subtle pressure that what we say, if it is not appreciated by some quarters, may not go very well. So I think that is also a subtle pressure. And I think, most of all … at the end of the day, although it has been underscored that the synod is not a parliamentary session, which it is not, but there is voting at the end. So the voting, so in the mind of people, although it is not a parliamentary session, but I think most people would take the votes as a kind of consensus making. Of course, at the end of the day, it’s the Holy Father who takes the decision; that’s what he has done. So I think, in the area of consultation, it is helpful for the Church, and I think it’s very important also for the prelates to listen also to the laity. But as has often been said, or some bishops are suggesting, perhaps there should be another level where it is really a Synod of Bishops, after hearing the laypeople, after journeying with them; there should be that level of bishop synods, where the bishops can come together, because that synod [with laity] cannot really be considered a theological dogmatic synod, because not all are theologically trained.

All those who vote are not theologically trained. So you might need to have another level, where it is just basically bishops, with the Holy Father, to determine certain doctrinal issues. In terms of pastoral outreach, I think for that kind of synod, it would be helpful; but when it comes to doctrines, I think it’s a bit different.

Cardinal William Goh sits down with Matthew Bunson, vice president and editorial director of EWTN News, on April 19, 2024. Credit: Sean Boyce/EWTN News
Cardinal William Goh sits down with Matthew Bunson, vice president and editorial director of EWTN News, on April 19, 2024. Credit: Sean Boyce/EWTN News

And the Christian population here makes, I think, about 19%, 20% of the total population. Is that right? What are the opportunities for ecumenical outreach for Catholics, but then also interreligious dialogue here? This seems a very rich place for that.

Yes, this is something unique in Singapore. We try to make Singapore an icon for ecumenism and interreligious dialogue. But I think, and I did share with many people, that it’s a bit difficult for other countries to duplicate what we are doing in Singapore. We have excellent religious, harmonious relationship with all the other religions. We know the religious leaders all by name, and we know them as friends. And so we do not have any issues. Anything we have, we will speak to them. We are all very friendly and supportive of each other. We visit each other for their religious celebrations. We are present for meetings quite often, and we share, and there is a lot of mutual respect, appreciation — and also the fact that, in Singapore, we have a law that forbids anyone to speak ill of another religion. That helps a lot, and so that makes everybody respectful because it is very sensitive. So, in that sense, there is already a lot of interfaith sharing among Catholics, among religious leaders. In terms of ecumenism, we are on very good terms with the Christians, and we are supportive of each other. So, of course, we could do more, you know, but I started an office … an archdiocesan [office] for interreligious dialogue and also ecumenism. But our resources are limited. And also my time is limited. I cannot be everywhere. I try my best, according to whatever time that I have to reach out to the Christians and especially to the non-Christians.

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The Church here, like the Church everywhere, is facing pressures from secularism, relativism. You’ve spoken about the importance of defending … I think you use the phrase “truth and justice.” What does that mean?

It’s important for us that, in the face of this secularism or the -isms, individualisms and so on, I think the Church has to be truthful in what we proclaim. I do not believe that we should make the Gospel message [different] or dilute the Gospel message. The truth has to be spoken because the truth sets us free. But, of course, truth has to be spoken with charity. That is very important. But I don’t believe that we should try to compromise the Gospel. And that is my fear: that, today, even Church leaders are compromising the Gospel. I don’t think Jesus ever compromised the Gospel, even for the adulterous woman. He says, “I do not judge you, I do not condemn you, but please sin no more.” I think that has to be mentioned. This is where the importance of truthfulness, mercy, and compassion [comes in]. 

You look at the world today: There is so much injustice. So what can we do? In some countries, not in Singapore, because I am a member of the FABC [Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences], in some countries, they are being persecuted because of their religion, sometimes because of their race, by political authority.

So how do we speak with those people in authority? How do we dialogue? So I think this is where, again, I think Pope Francis, I think his direction is certainly the direction we need to follow. Dialogue. We need to dialogue. We need to listen; we need to dialogue. We need to strengthen trust because, at the end of the day, we are all for the same goal. Humanity is all for the same goal: We want happiness, but not happiness, only true happiness. We don’t want just love. We want fruitful love.

Singapore has been described as a kind of bridge between the West and the East. What can Singapore show, and what can this region show, to the wider Church, in terms of harmony, but also the direction that you think we need to go?

Actually, Singapore is more in the first world [as a] country than the rest. That’s why, when I attend FABC meetings, FABC, although it’s a Federation of Asian Bishops conference, but actually the whole world is there, because countries are very affluent, … and some are poor; some [there is] a political issue, some religious suppression. So it’s very diverse. So, in that sense, a bit difficult. But for us as a Church, I think Singapore can be a model, in terms of: How do we remain faithful in our faith in an affluent country? Because the challenges facing Singapore is basically a first-world problem. So we could identify very much with Europe; whereas the problems that Europe is facing is not the problem of Africa or Asia, in general. So it is sometimes a continental issue rather than the issue of the universal Church. So, like in Singapore, what I think we can do is really help to promote religious harmony. That is our strength because of the work that we have been doing — and especially to help governments. In Singapore, the beautiful thing about our government is we see ourselves as a multiracial, multireligious country. We are not a secular country.

We have a secular government, yes, to ensure fairness, impartiality; and even most of the members in the government, they belong to some faith, and they are very staunch in their faith. But I think this is where Singapore can show the way: how, even in a very cosmopolitan country, very diversely religious country, we can live together. So long as there is respect, sensitivity to each other, then I think we can work together. And Singapore has so many races, as well, so many ethnic groups of people; we can live together as one, so that, for us, I think [we have] a forte [to model] for other countries in the world, [showing] how to live harmoniously. I think you need to have a good government, a strong government to be able to support the work of the religions and all the NGOs.

So that relationship between the Church and state has to be respectful.

Yes. And in Singapore, the state sees us as partners, which is true. We are partners with the government for the same reason, because it’s for the common good of the people. We take care of their spiritual needs; we help the government to make sure that they rule justly. We express our views, and the government is very grateful. When they have certain issues, moral, social issues, they will consult the religious leaders. Of course, at the end of the day, they have to make the decision. I mean, it is a multireligious country.

Asia is one of those parts of the Church, like Africa, where the Catholic population is growing. Do you see the importance of Asia increasing in this century? And, if so, what can the rest of the Church learn from Asia as an experience? I know that we’re talking about a very diverse set of cultures and countries, but the Church does seem to be growing here, and it’s very vibrant.

I would say that, and this is my assessment, I think the problem with established Christian countries, like Europe, for example, faith, I think, has become too institutional. Religion has become ritualized. It becomes routine; it becomes a custom, even. It is not a personal faith. They don’t have this personal encounter with Jesus. In Asia, because many of us are converts, at least for the last two, three generations — and to convert from one faith to another, it’s not an easy thing; you will be marginalized initially — and so these people, not only have they studied about the faith, most of all, they have encountered Jesus. And that is what my conversion-experience retreat tries to do. Actually, the conversion-experience retreat, at first, [when] I started, it was meant for lapsed Catholics. I wanted to bring back the lost sheep. Then, after that, a lot of members in the Church [say], ‘We also never experience God. We also want to join,’ so it becomes for all now. But I believe that when we get a person to encounter Jesus personally, Jesus is real; Jesus is alive. They can encounter his mercy, his love, his forgiveness. Their life will change.

And I honestly believe all these ideological struggles, whether it’s gender ideology, same-sex, all this abortion, euthanasia — all this comes about because you are operating on the level of the head. On the level of the head, you can twist and turn. You can argue from every side. For us who are Catholics, if you encounter Jesus, you know he is your Lord and Savior. You will accept whatever is taught in the Scriptures. You will live your life according to what Jesus has lived and has taught, even though you might not agree — because we have faith in Jesus. So, my pastoral approach in dealing with people who are disagreeable with the Church is … we cannot force our doctrines on these people. I invite them to know Jesus. I invite them to fall in love with Jesus. And I believe Jesus will take care of them — and Jesus will. Because if you love Jesus so deeply, surely you want to live like him. … Who are those people who are grumbling about certain moral issues of the Church? These are all … nominal Catholics, because they have no faith.

So your message to them is: Jesus?

Yes. We need to have a personal relationship, and the Church has to provide the opportunity, so it’s not just preaching, teaching; that is important, but that comes after. So even in the early Church, what do we do in the early Church? “Didache” comes after being evangelized. So the “kerygma” has to be preached first; then “Didache”; then the teaching. But we are putting the cart before the horse. We are teaching, and hopefully they receive the “kerygma.” … That is also my fear that the young people today, they don’t … because if they are brought up from a traditional Catholic family and if the parents are weak in their faith after confirmation, as Pope Francis will always say, it’s a farewell [to faith] — bye-bye. Because they have no faith; we call it a routine faith. It is not real faith. So what we try to do now, even for young people, is also to give them a deep encounter with Jesus. And we have the office of young people doing parallel to what I’m doing for the adults. We give them a good experience of Jesus. Their lives change.

Cardinal William Goh speaks during an interview with EWTN News on April 19, 2024, in Singapore. Credit: Sean Boyce/EWTN News
Cardinal William Goh speaks during an interview with EWTN News on April 19, 2024, in Singapore. Credit: Sean Boyce/EWTN News

With so many influences on young people, you’ve mentioned this office being developed. Your message to young people today, what is your immediate message to somebody who’s being challenged by social media, by the secular influences?

What I feel that is most important for young people: We need to build faith communities. They need to be supported in their faith. And that is the reason why, in order to keep the young people within the faith, we need to help them to form faith communities where they can support each other. So two things for me are critical in helping our young people to deal with all the challenges in the world: an encounter with Jesus; belonging to a faith community. And they will grow. As their faith grows, they will know what to do and how to deal with all these, you can say, challenges, in society. And, of course, I think there is also an important part to play … after “kerygma” is “Didache.” But then also we need to continue to preach and to teach. One of the reasons why young people have left the Church is because they feel that they cannot connect with the Church; they cannot connect with the doctrines of the Church. And we need to have more theologians, lay theologians perhaps, to be able to be the bridge between the ecclesiastical language and the ordinary language.

The problem is that we are trained in theology and Scripture. We tend to use this kind of ecclesiastical language. For us, it’s our — what do you call it? — our cup of tea. You know, we use that language so often that we don’t realize the people in the world don’t understand what we’re talking about. And so we cannot connect with the young people. So I think we need to have a bridge. And this is where all the social media and all these things will try to make it more palatable for young people to understand, to appreciate, and to be able to share with their friends.

Your Eminence, the last question I have is on one of the things that’s very clear in Singapore: the importance of family. Pope Francis talks about respecting the generations, of having those bridges from the old to the young. What is the secret here? Why is that still so much a part of life here? And what is a lesson there for other cultures to learn?

I think generally, not only within the Catholic Church definitely, generally Asian society, we tend to be focused more on the family. Family piety, filial piety, all these are very important. But that is also being eroded away because of the Western influence; because of affluence, because people want to have a better life, they will live, they will migrate, and parents both are working, in order to have a better life. Cost of living is high. So there are a lot of threats against the family, even in Singapore, although we are trying to protect the family. We have many — I think we have 11 — organizations that deal with family life. So we have to work hard at it. I won’t say that we are doing extremely well, but because we belong to this Asian culture, that family dimension is always important; but we need to protect it, because I think, with affluence, that family is being threatened. And because parents are all working, and the children, we have small families. In fact, we are below replacement of the population, as well. And then the younger people, they are not interested in having families. ...

So we are promoting [family life]. And the beautiful part is this, the government is working with us all. We have a ministry; we call it the Ministry of Social and Family. And this ministry, they try to promote family life. The programs that they have are very good programs, so we complement each other. And so we are grateful that the government also sees the importance of growing the family, strengthening our family, and healing people who are divorced and those from dysfunctional families.

This story was first published by the National Catholic Register, CNA’s sister news partner, and has been adapted by CNA.

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