Gaudete! The word evokes in me thoughts of Advents past – that mid-point of the preparations for Christmas, a break from the other Advent days and yet also a reminder how quickly Christmas is coming. The dark violet vestments are replaced with the color of rose, as is the 3rd candle of the Advent wreath.
I have been privileged to celebrate Christmas in many different lands and cultures, and I always find the unique touches impressionable and memorable. Whether it was my first Christmas in the missions in Shinyanga, Tanzania in 1974 celebrating with a “Charlie Brown-ish” 18-inch plastic tree that someone kindly sent to me (and in the pre-AMAZON.COM and DHL days, it arrived in time), and my invention of using cotton balls from our medicine chest for “decorations; or hearing the hauntingly minor-key sounds of the bagpipes in the streets of Rome that mark the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception and the feverish beginning of Christmas shopping; or the attempts to recover and restore Catholic Christmas customs in the cold winters of Khabarovsk – somehow all of this can be summed up with the words of this Sunday, “Gaudete” – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice! Indeed the Lord is near!”
An auspicious Birthday
The day after our wonderful Thanksgiving celebrations at the Maryknoll House in Stanley, I marked my 66th birthday. Many who know me know that I tend to shy away from birthday celebrations. I try to make the day just like any other (hmmm – denial of aging, perhaps?). I remember once in Rome planning to have a root canal on my birthday just to make sure I was not tempted to have a cake. I will leave comments on that maneuver to a therapist…
There were also many many more memorable birthdays surrounded by family and friends – and celebrated from Long Island, to Glen Ellyn, to Hingham, to Ossining, and then going “on the road” to Shinyanga and Dar-es-Salaam in Tanzania, to Rome, then to Irkutsk and Khabarovsk in Russia, back to Rome and then for 5 years back home in the States, and now, this year, celebrating my birthday in great style here in Happy Valley.
The priests and staff of the parish wanted to organize a luncheon. They offered me the choice of menu – western or Chinese. I chose Chinese and more specifically dimsum, something I thoroughly enjoy. Fortunately for us, the Crowne Plaza hotel (a 7 minute walk from the rectory) has one of the most elegant dimsum restaurants in the area, so off we went for a special luncheon.
We had an enormous round table towards the back of the brightly lit “Victoria City Restaurant,” and I was seated at the “head” of the table with Father Francis Li (my elder brother in the rectory, who is in his late 80’s) at my right, and Sister Bernadette Woo (next in age to me) on my left, and then our pastor, Fr. John Kwan together with our parish manager, Mrs. Rosa Fang taking up the challenge of ordering food for the group.
They first asked me, “What do you like?” Well, I had learned early on to never ask “what is it?” when eating and generally for dimsum I was the guest and just ate what was ordered. However the previous week at a nice luncheon (in the same dining room) I had sampled a delicious deep-fried frilly Taro puffs, and so I mentioned those and they were the first items ordered.
In the rectory, living with 4 Chinese priests and with a Chinese cook, our meals are 90% Chinese (varied dishes, mostly Cantonese-styled but also Shanghai and Mandarin [northern] dishes).
The dishes come out at various points during the meal (you never really know when you have everything on the table as plates are rotated until everyone is “full”). Every meal is accompanied by a very hot soup – which is what we drink at meals — no water, tea or any other liquid is served at the house… just hot soup. You learn to “slur” your hot soup at the end of the meal as a digestive, and the soups run the gamut – mostly fish-stocks, but also vegetable and meat (bone) stocks. Sometimes they are clear broths, other time they are filled with chunks of bone and meat, or savory – or even sweet – vegetables and fruits to add depth of flavor.
Some of the soups are memorable — one of my favorite ones is made with squash, sweet potatoes, carrots and pumpkin seeds and a small fruit boiled in the broth: a very pleasant “dessert” soup!
Another feature of food here is that just about everything seems to be edible and the food is often presented as a “total piece” such as this version of fried chicken, which is definitely not KFC!
If you look closely, the chicken is smiling! At this same meal (a recent trip to another restaurant) we had another wonderful delicacy. The bones and meat of a fish are carefully removed from the skin, the bones set aside, and the flesh whipped into a delicious mousse and then carefully reinserted into the fish skin and then delicately steamed and then quick stir-fried. I was so taken away eating it I forgot to take a photo but you eat the entire fish – head to tail.
Chinese Birthday specialties
Since this was my birthday, many of the dishes were specific for birthday celebrations, including 2 different kinds of roasted pork, various types of dumplings, and something – well — ummm… The custom at banquets is to always serve those to your right and left (and they will serve you). From the various platters and steaming serving baskets you take the “serving” chopsticks (never using the chopstick you eat with to touch food being passed or served to others). You watch and wait for the central circular table on which the platters are placed to turn towards you, then you serve those around you, and then you are served.
This is very polite, and makes one always conscientious about those immediately to your right and left. The down side is that you can be served something that you may not really want….
So, one of the dishes was rather questionable but everyone seemed to be digging in. I was going to “pass,” but suddenly the pastor was leaning across with the serving chopsticks and dropped this “delicacy” into my small bowl. I played a bit with it with my chopsticks – too slimy to really get a grip on it. But everyone around me was making noises of appreciation as they dove into this delicacy. I tried… and I tried… and finally hid it under my bowl. What I could not fathom was how to possible eat “chicken feet.” Nor do I want to ever learn.
That small “oops” aside, the rest of the meal was great.
One of the great birthday dishes is “long life noodles” – noodles so long, really long like in almost 2-3 feet long… that to eat them is a challenge. Fortunately they come served with a pair of scissors so Rosa did the honors of first cutting through them making them a more manageable 12″-15″ — still a feat for chopsticks. There were two types, one very savory and earthy, while the other had more spices. Here Rosa uses huge bamboo sticks to mix the noodles.
The meal was great and those who follow me on Facebook were able to see my taping of Cantonese “Happy Birthday,” sung as they brought out the main dish, Steamed Longevity Bun with Yolk.
These are enormous – I barely could eat a half (and the others seemed to each take a quarter). As it states, it is a sweet doughy bun steamed but in the center it has a steamed egg yolk, and outside it has a brushed rose color to imitate the shape and color of a peach, a fruit symbolic of long life and health.
Here are a few last photos of the Birthday celebration:
As Sister Bernadette told me that morning, “Father, a full life in China is 60 years. Now that you are 66, that means you are really now 6 years old again.” Nice idea. And so passed another memorable birthday!
Becoming legal in a foreign land
When I was flying to Hong Kong at the end of October, I almost did not get on the flight because at the counter, the agent asked me “How long do you plan to stay in Hong Kong?” I forgot to say, “Oh, only for a few weeks.” But then again, she was also looking at my 3 over-sized suitcases, so I blurted out the truth, “Oh I plan to live there.” Well, one does not come into Hong Kong to “live” without a work Visa.
Once I arrived here I had to move fast to submit a work contract (through Maryknoll and the Diocese of Hong Kong) and then await the call from Immigration.
The call came through an e-mail on the 23rd of November. I then went on-line and with the help of Rosa made a reservation to present my paperwork (Rosa will often be mentioned because without her and her expert assistance, I would flounder quite a bit here).
On Thanksgiving Day I had my first appointment at the Immigration Tower, a tall building in Wan Chai district. I took the MTR (subway) and then walked – with hundreds of people – to the tower and to the logn lines and queues, but since I had an on-line “reservation,” I managed to finish all the work in about 45 minutes.
Once I was issued a “Work Visa,” I had to leave the country and then re-enter through Immigration so that the Visa could be activated.
Noting that I had to do this sooner rather than later, I took the ferry to Macau on Sunday the 29th of November in the late afternoon.
Hong Kong and Macau are on the right and left of what is called the Pearl River Estuary.
The ferry takes about 65-75 minutes (depending on its speed) and these run very smoothly, although they are very crowded. Once you get your ticket, you are issued a seat number for the ride (no standing). Just before sunset, we were pulling into the southern island of Macau (like Hong Kong, Macau is a series of small islands). I made it through Customs and Immigration and then into a cab and heading across the bridge to the older main island (that borders China — although today, like Hong Kong, Macau is part of China –.
Macau is an old Portuguese territory with a long history of the Padroado and steeped in the old trading routes from China through Macau to India and on to Europe.
Although quite historical (especially when you see the remains of the facade of St Paul’s Church or the colonial government headquarters),
today, more than ever, Macau is Asia’s version of Las Vegas with glitzy casino chains and bright lights. But it is also a crowded city like Hong Kong as the following photo taken at dusk shows.
And here is one of the bigger casinos.
The overnight trip gave me an opportunity that I needed to read through the galley proofs of my thesis that is scheduled to be published next year in The Jurist. I had had the proofs for about 10 days but had no time to sit and really read though the pages (60) and footnotes. Thanks again to Rosa, I had a hard-copy prepared for the trip, in large enough sized print to help me make the corrections without going blind.
I finished the last page at 11:15 p.m., and was soon asleep – and woke the next morning at 6:00 a.m. to make my way back to the harbor and an early ferry back to Hong Kong, arriving just as rush hour ended.
Passing through Immigration on arrival I was finally “legal.” The next step was to return to the immigration Tower to begin the processing of my Government ID card, which I did on December 4th (being finger-printed, photographed, and interviewed by an immigration policewoman). I now have my permanent ID card number and the card will be ready on December 18th.
More introductions to ministry
Like any other diocese in the world, we are divided into deaneries here in Hong Kong, and my deanery covers the central and eastern portions of Hong Kong Island. On December 2nd, accompanied by our pastor here, who is also our dean, and with Fr. Joseph Tan, our youngest priest, we made our way by taxi to the east around Fortress Hill, past North Point and Quarry Bay and finally to Shau Kei Wan to Holy Cross parish that would host the meeting of some 22 priests and deacons.
It was my first chance to meet many of the other priests – diocesan and missionary – working in the area, and for them to meet me. Fortunately, there are a few other Maryknollers in my deanery, including Fathers Vince Corbelli, Jack Cuff, John McAuley and Jim McAuley.
Returning to teaching adult catechetics
One of the first works I undertook as a seminarian and then as a priest in Tanzania was conducting classes for adult catechumenates (or as we know this in the US, an RCIA class [Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults]).
Once I unpacked at the beginning of November, a number of people asked me if I would be willing to form a catechumenate class. Conducting such classes is one of the most challenging and yet fulfilling parts of being a missionary. Here you are, a foreigner in a foreign land and with a faith that is often perceived as “foreign.”
And yet the primary reason we go into Mission is to share our faith with others, and in Maryknoll, to share our faith in a foreign land in a language and culture that are not our own.
Although I was never completely separated from this work of primary evangelization, other works and ministries took up much of my time and energy.
Now I find myself in a country whose culture is totally alien to me, and surrounded by people speaking a language I can barely understand. And yet, here was this call, this opportunity to enter into primary evangelization. So with the encouragement of the pastor we began announcing the formation of a new class or group who would be prepared for baptism at Easter 2017 (we have a minimal 16-month program).
I was not sure what to expect or hope for. But slowly applications to enter the class began to be placed on my office desk and we had our first meeting on December 3rd – appropriately starting on the Feast of the great missionary, St. Francis Xavier, S.J.
My group began with about 14 – and then grew and grew and so after only 2 meetings and as we continue our 90-minute classes on Thursday evenings, I now have 22 men and women, some baptized Catholics but who lacked any catechetical formation, others are Christians who want to become Catholics, and others are non-Christians. There are a few couples in the group (some traveling from Kowloon and from the south part of Hong Kong island); some are Chinese, some are other nationalities here, including some Australians, Indians and Malaysians. And they range in age from 16 to 63.
Thanks to the generosity of friends I was able to order and import textbooks, and most recently Bibles (we can only get New Testaments here in English). Yes, the course is in English, but with the challenge of trying to share my faith in a “Chinese milieu,” which pushes me to spend all my spare time reading books on Chinese history and culture.
The time spent preparing the classes each Thursday is busy – but by the end of the evening, sharing my own faith with those men and women makes all the work very worthwhile.
The Judge is in…
You may wonder how my work as a canon lawyer is going? Well, after a few weeks spent studying back cases in the marriage tribunal here, I was given my first case on November 25th.
When I arrived in my office at the chancery I was handed a large file of a case and there was a cover letter from the Cardinal appointing me “Sole Judge of the 2nd Instance,” or of appeal cases. I had a few hours to read through a case and then render a judgment based on the acts and merits of the case.
Fortunately it was a fairly straightforward case and aside from a small hiccup in getting used to my office computer (I erased the entire judgment just as I was about to write the last sentence, and had no backed-up copy…), I completed the work.
Now I am working on my own cases and the work is unfolding gradually until I am able to acquire a portable tape recorder (dictaphone) and the computer hardware needed to do legal dictation and write briefs. I got an estimate for this apparatus (yikes), and will meet with my superiors in about 10 days to see if they can find the funding.
One of the reasons for this is that we have hardly any staff and they generally work translating the testimonies of witnesses from Cantonese or Mandarin to English. Since I do not speak either Chinese language, my cases are generally in English and so they expect me to transcribe my own testimonies (doing the work of a recording secretary or transcriber as well as be judge). One of these computer programs (DRAGON) is used in both the medical and legal field and allows one to “dictate” work and it is printed by the computer as you speak. Let’s hope it works.
In the mean time I am organizing all of the jurisprudence cases we studied at The Catholic University of America, and gradually making my way through the procedural changes that went into effect for the whole Church last Tuesday.
Living in a hot house
Our 6th floor apartment over the parish center has a nice configuration with most of the bedrooms blissfully on the back side of the building facing Leighton Hill’s cliffs, while I – alone – have a room facing THE RACE TRACK. Thankfully the track only seems to operate on Wednesdays and Saturdays, but sometimes the blaring of music and shouting are so distracting nothing seems to be able to block out the noise.
Our living quarters are a long corridor off our foyer and a main sitting room and dining room. Both of these rooms are spacious and have some nice furniture. But what places them at a higher level are all the fresh plants, and beautiful flower arrangements that seem to find their way to our apartment each week.
Just a week or so ago there was a lot of activity as workers brought up 3 elevators-full of enormous white orchid plants to brighten the space.
These planters, some 3-feet and some over 4-feet in height and with multiple orchid stems in each large ceramic pot are beautiful and we all share in caring for them.
Truth be told, as beautiful as they are, these are funereal arrangements donated to the church after a big funeral. White is the color of death here (as opposed to the West’s use of black). But looking at these planters filled with so many orchid blossoms one can only thank the families that thought of offering them to the church and rectory. Aside from these, we also have vases of cut flowers donated for the church and our residence.
And now with Christmas approaching, our hallways and landings are filled with poinsetta plants for Christmas.
My classmate’s legacy
One of my closest friends in Maryknoll, and a classmate since our novitiate year, Father Sean P. Burke, M.M., who passed away here in Hong Kong a few years ago, had a touching hobby. He was fascinated by the story of the Nativity and most especially by its expression in so many cultures through creche sets.
Slowly he began a collection of creche sets from all over the world, and as family, friends and acquaintances knew of his passion for these the collection grew and grew. One of Sean;s legacies (and there are many) was a book of photos taken of a good majority of the creche sets he had so painstakingly collected and cataloged.
Each year in Advent, Sean would carefully set out these collections in rooms at our Maryknoll House in Stanley and soon word spread of this unique collection and people from all over Hong Kong and beyond traveled to Stanley to see the massive collections.
Although Sean has passed away, we continue the practice of placing his collection out for the public every year for the Advent Christmas season. Last week, on a brief trip to Stanley to do some business there, I had a chance to see first-hand Sean’s legacy and want to share a few photos of that visit, and share also this beautiful tribute of my classmate for the mystery of the Incarnation.
Gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord, always
Friends as we began the 2nd half of our Advent preparation for Christmas, the words of tomorrow’s liturgy ring very true for me.
The words of the opening prayer are my prayer and hope for all of you.
“O God, see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity, enable us we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.”
Each evening when I return to the parish, I look up the massive staircase in front of our church and see the lighting on the open doors and see how this “light”continues to draw men and women of faith to our community.
Many of you have received my annual Christmas letter by e-mail; others will receive it in snail mail. As we move closer to Christmas, please keep me and my mission here in Fragrant Harbor in your prayers.