Launching out into the deep

In most of the places where I have been sent over the years, I had the privilege and opportunity to have a gradual introduction into the new mission area where I would serve. Maryknoll, from the time of its first missions here at the mouth of the Pearl River in South China, operated an excellent system of language and cultural studies that every missioner underwent for the first months or even years before being inserted into any form of pastoral ministry.

But times – and exigencies – change the way we can do mission now in the 21st century, and often the luxuries of the past of a leisurely and ordered insertion into a new culture with a new idiom of language and the opportunity to learn how to avoid the mistakes of “foreigners” are no longer possible, especially when one is in his late 60’s.

As noted in my earlier posts, I arrived here on October 28th and by October 30th, I was already moved into my parish and began work on November 1st. This week marked my 3rd Sunday with the English-language community here, as well as the beginning of my other work in the diocesan tribunal.

Small town reunions

I came to know of a few people who are friends with neighbors of mine from Garden City, and on Monday, I made my way to Sheung Wan station on the metro (far western side towards Hong Kong University and Kennedy Town), and met up with a lawyer and journalist who have had many years of experience here. They chose one of the “in” Italian restaurants at Millennium Plaza (Queens Road and Bonham Strand), and it was interesting and enlightening listening to their own experiences of living and working here with their families.

Tuesday was a day spent out at our Maryknoll House in Stanley. This is the sign at our entrance on 44 Stanley Village Road, and it leads up a very steep and winding path to the summit of the hill where we built out house back in the 1920’s.

Entrance to Stanley

It was nice to get away from the noise and rush of the city center and bask in the quiet of a country retreat house. Nestled in the mountains between Repulse Bay and and Tai Tam Bay with the peninsula jutting out on the east end of Stanley Bay into the East Lamma Channel, the mountains rise up from the beaches to “The Twins” – two peaks nearly 400 meters above sea level. Here is a photo of our house (with the green-tiled roof).

Our Maryknoll House on hills of Stanley

And a view of the panorama of Stanley Bay.

Panorama of Stanley BayStanley harbor view

That evening, our local superior, Father Brian Barrons, M.M. hosted a “welcome dinner” for me to meet the men working in and around Hong Kong, and after the dinner, he kindly provided the house car to drive me home to Happy Valley.

The Diocese of Hong Kong and Tribunal

Following my studies program at The Catholic University of America, one of the challenges my superiors faced was finding me a place in ministry within the Maryknoll world where I could not only do pastoral work, but more importantly, use the new education I had just finished.

The Diocese of Hong Kong, that covers the entire territory of Hong Kong, Kowloon, the New Territories, Lantau, Cheung Chau, Lama and many other islands in the West Lama Channel, Victoria Harbor and off the shores of both West and East Kowloon, was established as an Apostolic Vicariate on 4 October 1874, and elevated to the rank of a Diocese on 11 April 1946. Its Chinese name is Xianggang. It has a population of 7.1 million people living on only 1.104 km2 of land, and the Catholic population is 563,000, divided into 51 parishes and 97 stations or chapels. There are about 70 diocesan priests and 233 religious men (missionaries and local), as well as nearly 500 religious Sisters serving the communities here.

The Bishop of Hong Kong is 76 year-old Cardinal John TONG HON, a priest born and raised in Hong Kong who has been a friend of Maryknoll for many years (he and I met in the late 80’s when I was a graduate student in Rome and he often was a guest at our house there).

Cardinal John Tong in cathedral

My pastor here at St. Margaret’s, Father John B. Kwan, told me after breakfast on Wednesday that I was expected at the diocesan headquarters on Caine Road (Central District) at 2:15 p.m. that day. My bad luck, it was a muggy, overcast day, and it was suggested, as this was my first formal meeting, best to go dressed in my black suit!

It took me a while to flag down a taxi (because, like the rest of the world, when it looks like it is about to rain… the taxis disappear). I had been told that the cathedral is “up a hill” from Central Metro stop… but what a hill! Thank God I was in a taxi!

Our cathedral, Immaculate Conception, is almost completely hidden by the surrounding diocesan buildings built up on either side (a large diocesan office block, where I will have an office, the cathedral offices, a college, high school, and large CARITAS (charity development) headquarters.

Front of Immaculate Conception cathedral

The interior is very bright and minimalist in decoration, and offers a very restful and quiet place for worship in the midst of all the tall buildings and hillside surrounding the church.

intgerior 1 of cathedral

I made my way the the 12th floor of the diocesan building and had my meeting first with Cardinal Tong, and then with my immediate supervisor, Father Francis Tse, the Judicial Vicar of the Diocese. Over the course of the next 2 hours or so, I was introduced to one of the Auxiliary bishops (there are 3), Bishop Stephen Lee (also a canon lawyer), the Chancellor, Father Lawrence Lee, and all the other secretaries in the diocesan tribunal offices.

I was shown to my own office, on the 11th floor, and introduced to the staff there. It is a small, quiet place, situated near the archives, with the current files all kept in the office of the Judicial Vicar on the 12th floor. So.. I will be doing quite a bit of stair-climbing between floors.

Both the Cardinal and Judicial Vicar explained the work before me (as a judge, but also switching roles, as needed, to be an auditor, and as an advocate for certain cases). The majority of our cases are more “missionary,” meaning a lot of “Petrine” and “Pauline” privilege work, but there are also the usual nullity cases to address.

They were very kind and solicitous in letting me determine how many hours and on what days I would work at the chancery, and then allowed me to also work from my office in the parish here at Happy Valley. This made my pastor very happy himself, knowing I would be “available” for pastoral work too.

A Cup of water, please!

Having been on the road for 35 minutes to get to these meetings, and then sitting through them in somewhat warm rooms (and me wilting in my black suit), Father Tse asked if I would like a cup of coffee. I was a bit surprised at the offer, as coffee is rarely served here outside of newly-fashionable coffee houses, and the usual beverage is tea. But Father Tse did his canon law studies at St. Paul’s University, Toronto.

So, when he asked if I wanted something to drink I answered, “Just a cup of water, please!” I was badly in need of a nice, big, cold cup of water.

Oh… but this is China….

In a few minutes Father Tse’s secretary brought in a very elegant square saucer and big white ceramic cup — filled with……. HOT WATER!

In China, the beverage of choice is just plain old HOT WATER. I suddenly remembered a brief period in 1977 when I was finishing my M.A. at the University of Notre Dame and living at the Maryknoll House in Chicago. We had a Chinese priest in residence, and I recalled now… staring at him drink hot water every morning. Live and learn.

Renewing friendship

With my work more or less now outlined, I awaited the arrival of my Maryknoll classmate, Father Joe Thaler, who has been a close friend since the day we both entered the seminary in August of 1967, just after we both graduated from high school. Our birthdays are 3 weeks apart, and so in seniority in the Society we have always been behind one another, and so we also were ordained (me first) on May 21st, 1977. This is a friendship that has spanned nearly a half-century.

Joe has worked for most of his missionary career in Nepal, where he is currently tackling the reconstruction of the nation destroyed by massive earthquakes earlier this year. He was coming to Hong kong for meetings with our Superior General, and so it was fortunate that, after arrival, they dropped Joe at my parish so he could spend a half-day with me before his meetings began.

I was able to show Joe the parish after we had a quick breakfast, and he had a chance for a short nap to catch up on sleep. We walked all through Causeway Bay (the massive shopping district below Happy Valley), had a nice Italian lunch at Times Square (a shopping center) and then he took the taxi across the island to Stanley for his meetings.

We ended up spending most of today (Monday, Nov. 16th) together, as he took me out on a huge hike down the mountain at Stanley to one of the furthest beaches belonging to St. Stephen’s school. It was a nice trek downhill… but then meant we had to also trek uphill. My mistake was not bringing shorts… it was hot, humid and although breezy, it was also a lot of exercise, but it gave us a chance to talk, exchange ideas and views and also see the scenery. Here are just a few photos.

My classmate Joe 1 A smiling missioner after an hour-long hike up and down mountains at Stanley Classmates since 1967 when we entered the seminary together, and ordained together in 1977.My Sherpa

And to our surprise, later that evening we had a Mass and dinner with the Maryknoll Sisters serving in Hong Kong, and joe and I met Maryknoll Sister Marilu Limgenco (from the Philippines) who studied with us from 1972-1974 at Maryknoll, NY. We had a great time at Mass and later at dinner to catch up – lots of stories, lots of laughs.

Classmates reunion

This is shopping???

For those who follow me on Facebook, they know I have had to go down to Causeway Bay area to do shopping. This is a very heavily congested area with 5 or 6 massive indoor malls in 12-14 story buildings.

I was on a mission to find what is called a “mattress topper” for my bed and armed with some addresses from the internet, I made it to 4 of these malls — but Saturday is a day when thousands upon thousands of tourists from Mainland China, Japan, Southeast Asia and Hong Kong itself swarm into the tiny alleyways and side streets leading to these malls with names such as Times Square, Hysan Place, Windsor Place, and Sogo.

In some places the traffic is so dangerous and horrific, the only way to cross streets is by climbing about 30 steps and using the cross-overs — round tunnels about a story or two above the ground that help you cross without being hit by (take your pick) a bus, tram, taxi, mini-bus, bicycle or car…

Overpass for pedestrians over very busy streets

I made it to Sogo, where I had to wait on a queue for 25 minutes just to take the lift (elevator) to the 12th floor (and back). I was amazed not only that people seemed to make it from point A to B without crashing into each other, but their patience waiting on long and exhaustive lines such as at the big APPLE store, filled with thousands of people waiting to see a sales agent.

Our local Apple with 2 floors of massive lines

And there were the crowds on the street too…

Hysan Place mall and crowds every which way Saturday shopping in Causeway Bay

I did manage to find and purchase the mattress topper.

And so another week has passed. I have a better idea of my work now. My superiors her and the other Maryknollers are commenting that I have made an exceptionally quick and painless transition to my new work and ministry. I am settled in, I am getting to meet and come to know my parishioners, and I find that I am “at home,” more quickly than I imagined.

Of course, there are still problems with language. I was told when I met the Cardinal, that I am expected to try to learn some conversational Cantonese (not Mandarin) — this is a 9-tone complicated tongue, which is very difficult to master by people 40 or more years younger than me. Keep prayers coming that I manage to not throw in the towel when facing this almost impossible task.

Well — I have more to write but it is 9:45 p.m. on Monday, and I have 6:45 a.m. Mass tomorrow at St. Paul’s convent, so I better get back to my room and prepare a short homily!

Jesus challenged his disciples to “launch out into the deep,” an invitation to go out beyond boundaries and not be afraid of the dangers or challenges that lay before me. I do hope I can somehow, in some way, continue to be up to the challenge.


  1. Mary Konschnik · November 16, 2015

    Hello Father Joe, this is Mary!!! I am so enjoying your Mission blog!!! Is that correct to say this? You do have a gift to make stories and events come alive!!!! If anyone is up for a challenge in this life, it is you!!!! I hope you receive my card. I wanted to send you something for your birthday, but I could not figure out what to send. I tried to call Hong Kong Embassy for advice, but to no avail. I will keep trying. Are you able to cash personal checks? That is one question I need answered. Same old, same old here. Busy at church keeping vessels shiny and linens pressed. Love it all though. Counting is fun, too. One day, it will be time to turn in my key! Maybe, I can help here at Riderwood. Thanksgiving will be celebrated on our farm with family. Actually, we gave farm to our girls, they love it. It is 22 acres, more or less. Each daughter wanted their parcel. Worked out well. Whenever I go there, I feel Dons’presence very strongly. It is quite wonderful. Today was a beautiful day. Walked about. Waiting for my daughter Marianne now. she dropped Abbey at her dorm at U of Md. We will have dinner and then she will depart for home. All were at the beach this weekend. They bought a condo there to use now as R&R. It will be their retirement place in the future. By the way, How long is your assignment? I wondered about that. when will we see you again? Texting message now intrudes. Will e-mail again. Prayers always for you.Thank you for being in my life. Love, Mary


  2. Brenda · November 17, 2015

    What? No Bed, Bath and Beyond for the mattress topper? πŸ™‚


    • Father Joe · November 17, 2015

      Brenda, I do not need another international incident with BB&B. πŸ˜‰ I did find exactly what I wanted here and given Hong Kong as a very rare (and impossible to find in the US) mattress measurement of 4 feet by 6 feet, it was best I tried locally. At least they know the measurements.


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