Farewell to our ‘Psalmist’ and ‘Great Builder of Community Centres’

Fr Anthony ThomasMonsignor Anthony Thomas, known fondly as a ‘Psalmist’ and ‘Great Builder of Community Centres’ passed away on 24 September 2017 at the age of 80. He will be memoralised through his music and the parish community centres which he built during his tenure as parish priest in the Archdiocese of Kuala Lumpur.

Psalm 104:33 - “I will sing to the LORD all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live” probably best describes the passion which the late Monsignor Thomas had which resulted in him painstakingly composing the Psalter with musical notes for the Church’s three-year liturgical cycle. The compilation which covered all Sundays, Solemnities and Major Feasts of the Liturgical Year (Years A, B and C), was a result of more than 10 years of labour and love by Monsignor Thomas.

In an interview with this writer in 2000, the late monsignor had explained how the Book of Psalms has always held a special interest for him.

“The Psalms, which can be found in the Old Testament and recalled in the New Testament, hold a significant place and a very important role in the history of the Church. The Psalms were the prayers of Israel in the Old Testament, in which God inspired the feeling that His children ought to have towards Him and the words they ought to use when speaking to Him.

The Psalms are the official prayer of Israel. It is also the prayer of Jesus. They were recited by Jesus Himself, by the Virgin Mary, the apostles and the early martyrs.

“Psalms form the foundation of Christian liturgical prayer used by countless religious, priests and deacons as well as an increasing number of laity. It is our prayer. It is the prayer of the Church.

“What actually pushed me to try and find my own way of composing something was that I was motivated by Vatican Council II. In the process of Liturgical restoration, Vatican Council II has highlighted the Responsorial Psalms in the Liturgy as an "integral part of the Word of God" (cf General Instruction on the Roman Missal No 36 S.C.)

“It reemphasises the place and role of the Responsorial Psalms in the liturgy. The Responsorial Psalms are strictly the people's response to God Who speaks to them. The emphasis that the Responsorial Psalms are an integral part of the Word of God means that the Psalms cannot be omitted. They have to find a place to be proclaimed.

“The Psalms are meant to be meditative. The people’s response can be in the form of a chant. Chanting is a common feature in our Asian culture. This form of meditation impresses me a lot and I am proud of it because I am an Asian. It then became my desire to put these `chants' into music.

“Over the years, as a priest, I have been noticing that not much justice has been done in respecting the proper role of chanting the Psalms in parishes. It is not anybody’s fault but no ideal guide or book has been made available in their hands.

“When I sit to compose my music for the Psalms, it is not directed to any particular group. My audience or target group is the general gathering of God's people on Sundays. This includes everyone - old, young, youths and little children. This is where the Church meets.

"My musical compositions are an expression of my feelings and my understanding of the Psalms. I do not deny other ways of expressing the Psalms because any composition is an expression of an individual. The way I understand, the way I feel about it whether in song or music or even in dramas is the expression of an individual. It is my way of saying, 'This is how I look at it, this is how I understand it’.

“At the same time, I am not claiming that my compositions should be the ideal for all parishes. This is my personal thought, my personal composition, the way I want to express the Psalms as a result of my years as a priest in various parishes.”

Today, many parishes continue to use Monsignor Thomas’ notes which have also been translated into Tamil and Mandarin.

Monsignor Thomas was also a firm believer that every church should have its own parish hall/centre and he set out to build multi-purpose parish community centres which earned him the title of ‘Great Builder of Community Centres’. His legacies still stand tall at the Churches of St Joseph Sentul, Visitation, Seremban and Sacred Heart of Jesus, Jalan Peel. The parish community of St Aloysius, Mantin where he served prior to his retirement, have him to thank for, for giving their church building a much-needed refurbishment.

Born in the East Coast town of Kuantan on 22 October 1937, Monsignor Thomas was the eldest son in a family of 5 boys and 6 girls. Described as quiet and shy, he displayed a musical inclination by picking up the harmonica and guitar. His affinity for music continued over the years and he soon mastered the organ, piano and violin.

As a young boy, Monsignor Thomas was fortunate to encounter several priests in his life – all of whom inspired him in one way or another to contemplate the priesthood. He joined the minor seminary in Singapore in the late 1950s and was later sent to College General major seminary in Penang to complete his studies. On 2 February 1965, he was ordained to the priesthood together with Fr Daniel Lim (who also went on to become a monsignor) at the Cathedral of St John in Kuala Lumpur.

MAT pic11Not long after his ordination, the young Fr Thomas was sent to India by Archbishop Dominic Vendargon to study Tamil. Upon his return after nearly a year, he was assigned to the Church of St Joseph Sentul as assistant priest. During this time, he began to promote the new Tamil hymns which he had brought from India to the predominantly Tamil-speaking community in Sentul. He also tried his hand at composing music for the liturgy starting with the Tamil version of ‘Lord Have Mercy’. This was used in the estates and soon incorporated in the Sunday morning Tamil Mass at the Church of St Joseph. In 1969, the first Tamil Liturgical Hymn book entitled ‘Poosai Padalgal’ was published and made available to parishes throughout Peninsular Malaysia.

In 1973, Monsignor Thomas was sent to Rome for studies where he obtained his Licentiate in Sacred Liturgy. He was later appointed as Chairman of the Archdiocesan Liturgy Commission where he organised formation programmes for commentators and lectors at archdiocesan level. Apart from that he continued to compose music for use during the Liturgy. At the same time, he was also invited to give talks on Liturgy throughout the archdiocese.

Having spent a number of years at the parish of St Joseph, Monsignor Thomas was posted to the Church of the Visitation in Seremban in 1991 where he served as parish priest until 1998. This was followed by a 7-year tenure at the Church of Sacred Heart of Jesus in Peel Road before his final posting to the Church of St Aloysius, Mantin in 2008.

In 2010, to honour his many years of faithful service to the Church, His Holiness Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI conferred on him the ‘Honorary Prelate’ in December 2010, which carries with it the privilege to use the honorific ‘Monsignor’.

Due to his failing health, Monsignor Thomas retired in June 2013 and took up residence at the Little Sisters of the Poor, Cheras.

Wherever he served, Monsignor Thomas was much loved by the parish community because of his simplicity, generosity and dedication to his work as a priest. He has certainly left an indelible mark in the lives of many and will be greatly missed by all who knew him. – By Patricia Pereira