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Rev Deacon Sherman Kuek OFS at the St Peter’s Square, Vatican, in Sept 2016. This and other photos are courtesy of Deacon Sherman.

Out of Covid lockdown comes Deacon Sherman’s CHRISTE

SEPT 1, 2020: As a young boy growing up in Muar, he would read the Acts of the Apostles over and over again. It was his favourite book in the Bible and St Paul was his inspiration. The apostle to the Gentiles showed him what it was like to be courageous when facing trials.

“I have many weaknesses as a man, but a lack of courage is not one of them,” said Rev Deacon Sherman Kuek OFS. “I had always been inspired by St Paul’s tenacity as a pioneer.” He is a permanent deacon of the Catholic Church, a Secular Franciscan, theologian, teacher and preacher.

“It seemed to me that his method of mission was always to depend on the Holy Spirit to open and close doors. So this has always been my policy, that is, to dare to attempt things that are unfamiliar, and to tell God, ‘If this isn’t what you want, then just close the door and I’ll know to stop.’ “

This was how Deacon Sherman brought together a group of clerics, academics and professionals from different parts of the world and from different Christian denominations to set up an academic research institute. All this happened during one of the most trying times – when the whole world was in lockdown due to the Covid pandemic – and at lightning speed.

“Instead of doors closing, doors just opened one after another. So if it was easy putting this team together, it is only because God directed this work. My job in CHRISTE is very much as a coordinator and spokesman for God’s purpose for the organisation.” 

CHRISTE stands for Christian Institute for Theological Engagement and Deacon Sherman is the founding and leading research fellow in the Catholic and Ecumenical Thought in CHRISTE. This institute was launched on Aug 28 to coincide with the feast day of St Augustine of Hippo. It was also on St Augustine’s feast day in 2008 when his profession into the Secular Franciscan Order was held.

CHRISTE is designed to create a pool of resources to help believers of Jesus Christ connect their faith to daily living. Some of us divide our life into compartments where what is spiritual remains in church and during prayer times. Church teachings hardly ever cross over to our earthly compartments and it is usually because we do not know how to connect the two worlds.

The divide got wider during the Covid pandemic because of the disruption it caused to our lives, eco-systems and the economy. How do we make sense of what was happening using Church teachings? This is what CHRISTE aims to do with the Vicar Apostolic of Brunei, the Rt Rev Cornelius Sim, as the current Ecclesiastical Patron.

“The idea of CHRISTE was a rather spontaneous one. It was birthed in the course of the current Covid-19 pandemic itself. There were many issues that occupied my theological reflections during the lockdown, such as the challenge of communication, human relations, public governance in relation to the common good, as well as healthcare and general wellbeing, among others,” he said in an email response to Journey With Us.

For Catholic and non-Catholic Christians

The 44-year-old was a non-Catholic Christian for many years before being received into full communion with the Catholic Church in 2008. Ten years ago, he was incardinated in the Diocese of Melaka Johor as a deacon.

Deacon Sherman’s diaconal ordination by the Rt Rev Paul Tan, SJ, Bishop of Melaka-Johor on June 16, 2010.

Asked why the need to include other denominations in CHRISTE, Deacon Sherman said: “I have always been involved in ecumenical conversations outside of the Catholic structure even though I am a Catholic deacon. I have always cultivated friendships and conversations with Christians from all sorts of traditions in a spirit of generosity and respect.

“One particular area of my involvement is academic theology, that is, writing and teaching in academic contexts. This does not mean that I am hesitant about expressing my Catholic convictions. Rather, I do my best to express my Catholic theological constructions in ways that non-Catholics can understand and connect with. This is possible because of my non-Catholic background.

“During this pandemic, I was reminded of how Catholics are not the only people who struggle with the current situation. As I pondered on the prospects offered by this crisis, I realised the need for inclusivity and bridge-building. This thrust – creativity, inclusiveness, and bridge-building – has very much been in my heart, since it is the mandate given to the People of God by the Catholic Bishops of Peninsular Malaysia. All these considerations gave shape to the structure and magnitude of the initiative that I felt the Lord was inviting me to conceive.

“We need a research institute that was based on academic research and specialised professional practices, that it should be ecumenical and inclusive, and also that it should be global in reach rather than purely local. Did it seem like a possibility at the point of conception? Not at all. I realised that I had to spend much time seeking the Lord on how this was to be done. It seemed overly daunting. Many unanticipated inspirations came about during my silent moments of prayer and discernment, and I acted upon them. When seemingly impossible challenges bore fruit, it became evident that God had already foreseen these possibilities and made them come to reality,” he said.

Bringing people together at lightning speed

Setting up an academic research institute that involved a spectrum of people under lockdown circumstances was a monumental task but Deacon Sherman pulled it off – with Divine Help.

“It can be rather surprising when we take time to think about how many people we actually know in the course of our lifetime. These patrons, academic consultants, research fellows, and specialised practitioners were mostly people whom I knew at a personal level, most of whom I was constantly in touch with because of my deep appreciation of who they are as people and respect for their professional integrity.

“When this idea of CHRISTE came about, I foolishly told the Lord, ‘But I don’t know anybody to work with me on this, and I myself am just a nobody!’ And almost immediately, it felt like the Lord was saying, ‘Really? Sit down and write down the names of all the people you have been in touch with in the past ten years of your life, and think of what they are already doing and what they mean to you.’ And once I got to listing down these people’s names, reality hit me about the explosive impact that could happen as a result of getting all these people onto a common platform to collaborate for the kingdom of God.”

“Throughout this time, I was (and still am) in communication with a number of my friends who happen to be academic scholars and specialised practitioners in various fields of research and practice. And I very quickly realised that more structured and formal work was needed to help us make sense of the this current situation that afflicts society.

“And because of my involvement in pastoral work as a Catholic deacon, I also realised that many people were, like me, struggling to make intellectual and emotional sense of what was and is happening. So, I initiated conversations with some of these friends – one at a time – to share my intention with them and asked them if they would be keen to collaborate on this initiative together,” he said. 

International affiliation and Theology studies

It was not just friends that he had conversations with during the MCO. He also communicated with the authorities representing the 12 countries from four continents who represent the United Nations Treaty Series 49006/49007, also briefly named EUCLID.

“I believe that God places people and contacts in our lives – sometimes seemingly very impossible ones – to equip us to fulfil His divine plans. This, for me, was one of them. My conversation with and proposal to them took place very smoothly, and they confirmed that my proposal fell well within the framework of their mandate. Within a couple of months, by early August, the charter was granted by the Secretary General of EUCLID.”

With that, CHRISTE is officially affiliated to EUCLID. “EUCLID is not much heard of among the populace, even in the academic world,” he said. This institution is a specialised intergovernmental institution set up to provide postgraduate degrees by distance learning for diplomats and high ranking government officials belonging to its twelve participating governments, as well as for UN employees.

Deacon Sherman with his wife Emmy at the baptism of his son Chastan Kuek on Oct 9, 2010. He was born on Sept 20, 2010 and named after St Jacques Chastan, the French MEP priest who served as parish priest of Immaculate Conception Church in Penang. He was the only parish priest in Malaysia declared a saint.

“We hope to bring the study of Theology to the populace because we are authorised to get grassroots people enrolled into these study programmes. There are, of course, costs involved in these studies, but they are not expensive like the study programmes typically offered by Western and local private universities,” said Deacon Sherman.

“I hope to help Christians at large to think theologically about matters pertaining to faith, society, and life. Many Christians are well-informed about the world, but at the same time, are hardly able to understand these matters from a Christian perspective because of the false dichotomy between the sacred and the secular. Pope Benedict XVI used to call it ‘religious illiteracy’. This is the unfortunate reality that we are attempting to heal in part.”

“CHRISTE also hopes to be able to facilitate those Christians who wish to pursue formal studies in Christian Theology. As a research institute, we are able to journey with those who wish to study for masters and even doctoral degrees in Theology (specialising either in Catholic, Orthodox, or Comparative Theology) and in interfaith dialogue via distance learning with EUCLID.

“In time to come, we are also planning to run lower levels of study such as certificate and diploma programmes in Theological Engagement by distance learning. The certificates and diplomas will be awarded by CHRISTE and validated by EUCLID. The purpose of all these academic programmes is not purely for academic achievements, but to fulfil the mandate to help Christians to think about faith and life theologically.”

Support for CHRISTE

Here is how Deacon Shermaon would like the community to support CHRISTE.
1. “I ask for prayers to regularly be made for God’s will to materialise through our work. There is so much to be done, and I am certain that God will continue opening doors ahead of us.
2. “I hope that Christians will be open to learn from us and to collaborate with us for the greater glory of God. We hope that whatever knowledge we disseminate will be of great help to Christians. This is also a greater journey of learning for us, and our hearts are open to receive greater understanding/ knowledge from individuals and institutions.
3. “Those individuals who find themselves quickened to support our work financially can contact us. Although all our CHRISTE personnel are serving voluntarily, including myself, running an organisation always involves costs. Generous financial contributions would help greatly. In time to come, I am hoping that we can start a scholarship scheme for deserving individuals to embark on our study programmes through financial contributions of individuals.”

He added: “Part of my courage as a pioneer is to never be bothered much by financial constraints. In my experience as a pioneer and missionary of over 20 years, when God wants something done, He will always provide sufficient resources for it, and when it is done well for His glory, the resources will be abundant so that the goodness can be multiplied. When I started CHRISTE together with my friends, finance was and is still the last thing on our minds. God will provide through those whom He calls to participate in this work.”   

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Deacon Sherman has listed some of CHRISTE’s intentional emphases:

A) We are ecumenical. We seek to incorporate Christian thought from various Christian traditions. This does not mean that there are no parameters for our theological constructions. We have to seek to always be faithful to the apostolic teachings of the ancient undivided Church as stipulated by the creeds that were formulated by the Sacred Ecumenical Councils.

B) We are academic. It is difficult for people to perceive us as ecumenical if we operate within a non-neutral context. Whilst each individual comprising CHRISTE represents a certain ecclesiastical affiliation (which definitely enriches our theological discourse), operating in an academic setting removes barriers to people’s inherent bias towards other Christian traditions that they do not understand well enough.

C) We are global. Malaysia does not lack academic and research institutions that focus specifically on local issues. For example, we have the well-established Catholic Research Centre under the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur. We also have Kairos Research Centre, which has done some very fruitful work in responding to local issues over the years. CHRISTE seeks to contribute to the expansion of our theological horizons by looking beyond just the local context, given that there is an increasing number of societal issues that affect global society. Of course, nothing stops us from responding to local realities when necessary, but we do not necessarily seek to limit our discourse to merely local affairs. The list of pressing issues impacting global society is long and there is much work to be done on those matters.

D) We are interdisciplinary. We have to be interdisciplinary because those scholars and practitioners who are involved in the study and practice of the social sciences contribute their expertise in ways that help us (theologians) to have a more accurate understanding of the issues confronting us. Based on their description of those social realities, the theologians provide our theological critiques, analyses, and responses in order to help people develop a more systematic way of understanding these global realities. We do not lack Christians who have deep piety in our communities, but we do lack Christians who are able to think and respond intelligently to social realities. Without this ability of think and respond systematically and intellectually, how would we be able to witness effectively to the Gospel of Jesus Christ?