Thanksgiving in a Foreign Land “How can I repay the Lord….? Ps. 116:12-13

Times change and seasons change and sometimes (or more often than we would want to admit) we change. We graduate from a school and move on. We pack our things and move somewhere else. In the years I lived in the US, Europe and Russia, we change out our closets as seasons change, unpacking warmer or heavier clothes, and storing those lighter clothes for the summers or seaside vacations.
Finding myself again in a very temperate climate that does not have the four stages or seasons of my youth, I am grateful to God for the few recent years that were spent in various parts of the northeast US, where I could again rekindle the joy of colorful autumn days and their crisp evenings filled with the scent of wet fallen leaves or (reaching farther back in memory) the smell of burning leaves in the street, that distinctive odor that so marked our fall seasons (and our clothes!).
The season of autumn always marked changes – a new school year, a new school, beginning high school in a foreign land (for those of us from Garden City) called BROOKLYN, and then entering college studies in a suburb of Chicago, or a novitiate year in the most vibrantly colorful northeast, New England (Hingham), and other autumns on the eastern shores of the Hudson River in upper Westchester County. Here is a great photo that reminds me of the wonder and beauty of God’s creation!


Autumn colorful foliage over lake with beautiful woods in red and yellow color.

Autumn colorful foliage over lake with beautiful woods in red and yellow color.

The missions, however, present a bit of a challenge to “seasons.” There are rainy and dry seasons; periods of intense heat or freezing cold; times of dry heat and times of excruciating humidity. I knew that I would miss such changes when I took up this new assignment, and so I smiled, recently, when I was warned that this week the temperature will drop…. to the high 60’s (F). I am sure too, that as time goes on, I will see other “seasonal changes” here in Hong Kong, and I know that there are more pronounced changes when one goes into the Mainland [and a note here, that as Hong Kong is now part of China, the common way of differentiating seems to be just saying “The Mainland,” and it means everything else BUT the Hong Kong area].

Because of both the unity of the Mainland with Hong Kong, and the nuanced differences about that union, those of us who live and work here, if we ever want to visit the Mainland, need to apply for a Visa, and lately the Mainland government has been granting 10-year multiple entry Visas, so I was fortunate to get one of those for the future. It lasts for the life of my current passport, which is great.

China Visa
More changes and more new experiences
My third full week here at St. Margaret’s was marked by even more meetings and introductions to new parts of my work.
We in Maryknoll began the week on November 16th with a general meeting of those of us living and working in Hong Kong meeting with Father Ray Finch, M.M., our Superior General, who was passing through Hong Kong to visit other areas in Asia and Southeast Asia where we work. It was a great afternoon of exchanging information, then a quiet Mass with the Maryknoll Sisters here in Hong Kong, celebrating and praying for those priests, Sisters and Brothers of our communities who passed away in the last year, and finally a great “sun-downer and barbecue” on the back lawn of our Stanley House, overlooking Stanley Harbor. That event was where I left off the BLOG last week.

In case you missed it – and because I like the photo, here again are Sister Marilu and Fr. Joe Thaler and I — classmates from 1972-1974 in formation.

Tuesday, the 17th I returned to my other office in the Marriage Tribunal of the Diocese of Hong Kong, located (as I have now discovered) on the east side of a part of town called SOHO. The terrain getting to Caine Road is perilous. From Happy Valley, we end up going around the entire perimeter of the Happy Valley Race Course and Sports grounds, and heading back north on Wong Nai Chung Road, that conveniently is a one-way street that goes around the entire complex. On the west side, we pass a mountainside of graves and cemeteries, including a Hong Kong cemetery, Roman Catholic (St. Michael’s) cemetery, and a Muslim and a Hindu cemetery [it is both fascinating and bleak]. In this month recalling the Souls in Purgatory, it was/is a time to commemorate all those who have “gone before us marked with the sign of peace,” and passing this cemetery on the high slopes that separate Happy Valley from the Wan Chai district reminds us of our own fragile life.

This is a sign at the entry to St.l Michael’s cemetery.


Here is a panorama of the cemetery built into a steep and high hillside.

St Michaels1

I found this sign ironic — if only it was so easy to find “a way out” of a cemetery, one that did not include grace.

Way Out of cemetery
Once you pass the cemetery area you move west merging with traffic coming down the hills from the south part of the island, and traffic moving east and west from Chai Wan, Quarry Bay, North Point and Causeway Bay to Wan Chai, Admiralty, Central, NOHO and SOHO (where the cathedral is located), through Mid-Levels, and then further west to University Heights and Kennedy Town. As you travel east and west along Victoria Harbor, these points become beacons for directions, especially finding one’s way amid the enormous skyscrapers that mark nearly every nook and cranny of space on the north side.
On that Tuesday, I started with a meeting with the Vicar General of the Diocese (Father Dominic Chan) who welcomed me, and went over my responsibilities in the diocese with me, and then graciously showed me around the offices of the cathedral (where he is also pastor).
I made it to my office, and finally had technicians come in to hook up and start my computer. Only one problem…. the computer in my office was completely in Cantonese. After an hour of work, they decided (after I pleaded with them NOT to attempt overwriting the Windows program in Cantonese with a Windows program in English), to get me a new tower. With that pretty much forcing me to head home, I packed and began working my way downhill to see if I could find the Catholic bookstore on Connaught Road (a major through-way). I managed to find it and had a check-list of items needed, including a Cantonese-English New Testament for my soon-to-be adult RCIA (adult catechumenate) program, some wall crucifixes for house blessings, and manuals for prayers and teaching.
By this point, the fact that I had been wearing a brand new – never-worn-before – pair of shoes hit me (painfully). Given the rush hour, I had not choice but to return home via the MTR (metro) and made my way to all the escalators underground. Getting to Causeway Bay (our stop) was not so bad, but it was the nearly 1/4 mile underground up escalator-down escalator- up stairs – down stairs – round tunnels that literally did my ankles in with the shoes. I was very very grateful seeing the last turn up Broadwood Road and the parish, and quickly changed out of the ^%$% shoes into sandals.
“How can I thank the Lord…?”
I barely settled in at my parish office, relaxing my sore legs and feet, when I received a phone call. It was the Anglican chaplain of the Hong Kong Sanitorium Hospital, originally built in 1922 and today a soaring green-glass tower attests to the excellent care given to those who enter this medical facility affiliated with the Open University of Hong Kong. The smaller building to the right (white) is the original hospital and nursing school built in 1922, while the soaring green-glass tower is the new state-of-the-art medical facility.

HK Sanatorium Hospital

I was called to pray over and anoint a British man who was dying. He was younger than me, suffering from a brain tumor, and his wife and caretaker were there when I arrived. I spoke briefly with them and then with the patient. He was in a semi-conscious state, but when I took his hand, he squeezed back very strongly.

We prayed and then I began the Rite of Anointing of the Sick – a sacrament sadly used less and less among Catholics. Fortunately for this man, who many thought was an Anglican, his caretaker (a devout woman from the Philippines) had taken the time to SKYPE his mother at home and she confided to the caretaker that he was Catholic. And so, it was the caretaker who called for a priest. The patient followed the prayers (I have learned to speak in a normal voice rather than a whisper at such times). I then spoke with his wife and left her my name and phone number in case they needed me again.

One way I constantly thank the Lord is for the grace to be able to be with people at such critical times. Ministry such as this demonstrates the graces we receive from God that we can often overlook.

Pastoral calls and responsibilities and learning the local Church rules…

The parish of St. Margaret Mary covers an enormous portion of the northern part of Hong Kong island, and is now considered the larges parish in numbers (and some say… also in wealth…) in the diocese.

Aside from the church here at the foot of Leighton Hill and Caroline Hill in Happy Valley, we also have 3 other stations or chapels for Mass.

The first, and largest, is the private “chapel” of the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres, just over the point where Leighton and Caroline Hills meet, and just behind the Happy Valley Sports Stadium.

The Sisters operate a primary school (just up the street from us, in photos below, the beige building being the original mission school and the large white structure behind it being the middle school today.)

Original St Pauls convent school New st pauls convent school

At their convent, they have an orphanage, secondary school, and a large modern hospital, as well as their chapel mentioned above, dedicated to Christ the King.

Xt the King Chapel

This chapel, built by the Sisters over some years is almost twice as large as our parish church. Here is some background on it, if you like.

Another chapel or community center for the parish is Rosaryhill School, founded by the Dominicans Friars in 1959 that today is a lprimary, secondary (“O” and “A” levels — e.g. from Form I-VI) and a Business College. Here Masses are celebrated every weekend in English, French and German.

Rosary Hill

And further up the hill moving west is Wah Yan College adminsitered since 1919 by the Irish Province of the Jesuits, and considered one of the most prestigious schools in all of Hong Kong (sort of the local version of Regis High School  for those of you from NY). Here Mass is also celebrated each weekend in English.

Wah Yan College, Hong Kong

On of the greatest contributions to Hong Kong by the Catholic Church is in the field of education. The city has a few hundred educational institutions either operated by or sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, and they are filled to the brink with students.

So – getting back to the parish, the pastor, Father John Kwan, asked me to now oversee and be responsible for all the “ex-patriot” communities and their liturgical celebrations and pastoral activities. So aside from the English-speaking groups, I also am asked to coordinate with the priests responsible for the French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Indonesian Masses. It will be an added challenge as the chaplains for most of these communities have operated somewhat independently from parish (and diocesan?) oversight, and there is a move by the diocese to get all the priests on the same page. For the English groups, it is easy as I know the other priests, and one of them, Father John Russell, S.J. is the dean of all the canon lawyers and judges in the diocese (and his office is next to mine in the tribunal). The French and German communities are more obscure as the priests are supplied through their home nations (and embassies) and so sometimes feel they are above or not responsible to the local diocesan structures. How this plays out in coming weeks and months should be interesting (and I discovered that I have a common language with both chaplains for the French and Germans — RUSSIAN! One is from Poland and the other from former East-Germany… so when I am not being clear, I switch to Russian).

Another blessing from the Lord, I suppose – having spent almost 7 years in Eastern Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Really, a small village

Despite the enormous population of this territory, Hong Kong is really a small village. In the course of any day you meet or pass by thousands. Just opening a window and look out at the nearest neighboring high-rise apartment has you peering in on the lives of a few hundred people (and they peer into your life too!)

I have finished 3-plus weeks here and yet, although I speak no Cantonese, word of the “new priest” has gotten around and I am finding it difficult to keep so many appointments in my desk diary (counseling, marriage preparation, baptismal preparation, blessings of home, hospital calls, visits to classrooms of CCD children, working with the lectors and choirs, planning weekend liturgies, presiding and funerals and wedding, interacting with a large and vivacious parish staff and catechists and volunteers, hearing confessions, organizing a new RCIA program, and fielding any class that come in to the parish and responding to pastoral needs as they arise.

Already I have met with 3 couples planning weddings after Easter (two of which I will preside), and am being called for marriage counseling sessions (sort of the preventative steps before they would have to see me after the divorce for a nullity case).

Another blessing from the Lord has been my “coveted” J.C.L. (Canon Law) degree opening new avenues of pastoral ministry.

Small and funny stories

Over the weekend, I was told that our cook, Fong Je, would be taking off all of this week. Usually on Saturday most of the priests eat together, but this particular weekend was exceptionally busy with weddings and other events and so only Father Francis Li (our octogenarian from the Mainland) and I were in. Father Francis loves Chinese noodles, but especially the northern-Chinese way of making them, which is mixed with aromatic spices, but served without any soupy sauces.

We were chatting about Italian “noodles” and he asked if I could make something along the Chinese style, and I thought, yes, bolognese sauce would be what he would like. So he called in Fong Je and told her that I would cook Saturday.

The comedy began. Fong Je speaks only Cantonese, as does our amah and Ming, ;our custodian. With Fong Je opening and closing drawers, cabinets, the fridges, etc… I had to “memorize” what I was seeing (knowing I could not possibly ask “Where is…?” I then pulled out what I knew I would need for a basic bolognese sauce: garlic, onion, chopped meat, salt, pepper, minced carrot, milk, red wine, fresh tomatoes, parsley and some spices. I found all of these, but Fong Je kept insisting I would want to use Ketchup too. She went off to do some shopping while I worked.

An hour later she came in, with the kitchen filled with the smell of the sauce simmering, and she started calling Ming and our amah, and soon the three of them were chatting as I stood there. Father Francis came in and doubled over laughing as he heard the three of them telling him how wonderful everything was — pointing at me, gesturing, “shouting” (somehow, no matter what is said, Cantonese always sounds like shouting). I did learn the word for “delicious” (sounds like “home-made”) and soon they were teaching me words for all my ingredients and teaching me some of the 9 tones. It was a lot of fun, and there is a great photo Fong Je took of me holding the finished product (Linguini and bolognese sauce) but it is on her phone and I could not tell her to send me a copy….

Sunday and dip sum

This past Sunday, after the celebration of Christ the King, I was invited to a local hotel for dip sum with members of the lectors and choirs of our parish and Christ the King Chapel. It was a great time, but since we had two tables, I had to first eat with one group, and then with the other.

The food was wonderful – everything. Wish I could have remembered half of it, but I enjoyed the way the dishes are presented in steamed bamboo baskets piled two or three high. There were savory and sweet dishes, meats, vegetarian dishes, fish etc…

The price was not bad and one of the great things of dip sum is that you only eat so much, but the tastes are so varied you fill up quickly.

Take me to church!

Every Tuesday morning, I celebrate Mass at 6:40 a.m. for the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres at Christ the King Chapel. Although it is not THAT far, the walk would have me climbing and then descending two pretty steep hills. So one of the parish volunteers picks me up.

This was my 2nd week going to the sisters. I was running late and knew my driver had a nice Mercedes (doesn’t everyone?). I came running out the “secret door” entrance (as we do not open until 7:00 a.m.), and ran down the steps in front of the church and saw a black Mercedes sitting there. I waved, then went to the passenger side and got in. I barely got out “Ni Hao!” (Good morning) and turned to buckle up. I noticed my female driver was now a male, but through, “Ok maybe her husband is taking me today.” So the guy turned on the engine and said “Saint Paul’s?” and I said “Yes, thanks.”

I arrived on time and began Mass.

After Mass I did not see my black Mercedes and the driver so I figured I was supposed to walk home… and was starting to move towards the gate when I heard, “Father Mak-Kye-Ye”! I turned and there was my usual driver. She waved me towards a beige Mercedes asked me how I got there for Mass?

Seems, I jumped into the car of a parishioner who was there for our 6:45 a.m. Mass and he just assumed I was asking HIM for a lift so he took me. AMAZING.

The judge is in!

Today in the chancery I stopped by to see the Judicial Vicar before I began work. I was first handed an envelope from the Vicar General and Chancellor — the decrees of my ecclesiastical appointments to both the parish (as associate pastor) and to the tribunal (as judge).

After trading some short talk with Father Francis Tze, the Judicial Vicar, he dug through the pile of pending cases on his desk and pulled out one, and said, “Can you read this and have the judgment on my desk before you go home today?”

I took the folder and returned to my office and then opened it. On the top was a Decree from the Cardinal appointing me “sole judge for 2nd Instance cases.” This means I am doing something like the appeal on cases. Under the current legislation, all marriage cases automatically are reviewed in the 2nd instance (but this will all change on December 8th when the new discipline of Pope Francis begins). I never saw a 2nd instance case before, and went back to ask, “What about the other two judges?” Normally 2nd instance is a collegial decision among 3 judges.

I was told that in Hong Kong, given that it is not a suffragan of anyone, they have some vague “special permission” to hear cases in the 2nd instance with a sole judge. As Pope Francis has so often been mis-quoted as saying, “WHO AM I TO JUDGE?”

So off I went to study the case, formulate my decision, and then write it – my first ever judgment of a marriage nullity case. Lucky for me it was so clearly a case for annulment (for my canon law friends, it was one of the clearest possible “total simulation” cases ever.)

So, yet again, I thank the Lord for this degree and this ability to judge and weigh mercifully justice in the Church.

The just judge

It is late now on the eve of Thanksgiving. The horses are (ugh) still running even now at 11:00 p.m. in this city that never sleeps.

Race night... again

The traffic on Ventris Road that climbs upwards to Caroline Hill and beyond is quiet now – but still well-lit.

Ventris Hill at night

And this parish church, nestled amid so many hills and in this valley surrounded by tall slim apartment complexes with hundreds and hundreds of residents, this church quietly sits with the lights always on.

The Light is on

As many of you sit to begin your Thanksgiving dinner this year, it would be good to take a moment and count the many blessings each of us has received and pray, ”

“How can I repay the Lord… for the good he has done for me?”





  1. Art Donnelly · November 25, 2015

    Fr. Joe, It is wonderful receiving your blogs, reminds me of your communications from the Russian Far East.
    Wishing you a Happy Thanksgiving and a wonderful Advent Season.
    Art Donnelly


  2. Elaine Jahrsdoerfer · November 25, 2015

    Joe- thank you for these windows into your new world. Thinking of you this Thanksgiving and wishing you a Happy Birthday too!

    Your loving Godmother


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s