Malaysian priests and nuns counsel people via phone during the MCO


Father Dominic makes it a point to call at least 50 parishioners daily during the MCO. Photos: Fr Dominic Santhiyagu

With all mass gatherings cancelled during the movement control order (MCO), the Church of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary Butterworth (NBVM) – like other religious bodies – has not been able to hold any masses or services.

However, NBVM priest Rev Father Dominic Santhiyagu knows how important it is to stay connected with his parishioners.

As such, he makes it a point to call up his church members, reaching out to 50 parishioners each day to find out about their wellbeing.

"As priests, we need a platform to remain in contact with members of our church. We understand there are individuals who are not connected to the Internet. Therefore, we continue to make our daily calls and reach out to everyone.

"Although the church doors remain closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I am still here for parishioners," says Fr Dominic in an email interview recently.

There are about 3,500 parishioners in NBVM. Every day, Fr Dominic and his assistant priest, Fr Louis Loi, try to contact as many families and individuals as they can.

"For those whom we have not contacted but may urgently need someone to talk to, we block out a few hours in our day to allow them to call us. We want to try to be available to all," says Fr Dominic, 47, who has been with NBVM since 2018.

(From left): During the MCO, Fr Dominic, pastoral chairman Stephen Chin and Fr Louis Loi have also been delivering food items to underprivileged communities in Butterworth. (From left): During the MCO, Fr Dominic, pastoral chairman Stephen Chin and Fr Louis Loi have also been delivering food items to underprivileged communities in Butterworth.

Fr Dominic spends between two and five minutes to speak to each head of the family or individual. He notices that many parishioners are happy to receive his call.

He speaks to people from all walks of life – from migrant workers, youths to senior citizens.

"Some of our parishioners are worried about their livelihood while many are looking for someone to lend a listening ear and share their ups and downs.

"We want them to know we are here to listen to them and pray with them. However, if we do encounter a situation where a person requires more help, we will connect them to the proper channels," says Fr Dominic.

Since March 29, Fr Dominic has also extended the service to include other religious leaders whom people can call. They include seven priests from Penang, Kuala Lumpur and Johor, and two nuns from Kota Kinabalu.

"These priests and nuns are among many religious people who have the gift of being good listeners. Their gentle personality makes them approachable and would undoubtedly put callers at ease.

"We cover the four main language groups (Bahasa Malaysia, English, Tamil and Mandarin) and are available at different times (9am-10pm) daily."

Fr Dominic says counsellors are essential in helping people navigate through difficult times.

"In any crisis, a person could be affected differently – financially, physically, psychologically, emotionally and spiritually. "We are not presenting ourselves as counsellors, but rather lending a listening ear in a time of need," he says, adding that the religious leaders have received over 40 calls since March 29.

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