This last month leading up to Christmas Eve hardly seems to have come and gone. My weekly appointment book for this month of December was so filled – with late additions, transfers of events, days off for sickness that had to be made up on other days and then the rhythm of the daily Masses and liturgies of Advent nudging us along day after day.
Earlier this evening I went through the parish hall where my community will celebrate Midnight Mass, and it is beautifully decorated – awaiting more fresh flowers tomorrow. In fact all day we had vans and cars of parishioners pulling up to unload pots and planters of poinsettias, orchids, and seasonal trees. The place looks great.
Our apartment is especially warm decorated with some any of these plants.
Since this is Wednesday evening, that means it is RACE NIGHT across the valley and the noise is especially loud tonight – last night for waging bets before the holiday weekend, and Hong Kong-ers love betting.
Learning and Sharing Faith – RCIA
One of my new initiatives in the parish was to resurrect an adult catechumenate. I spent most of November preparing the people for this, and in my last blog, we had begun the classes. I finally had to call a deadline as the class was getting too large to be workable — 20 adults now from various backgrounds is the final number.
The classes each week are a highlight for me, and last week – our last class before the holidays – I introduced the class to the classic Italian Christmas treat of panettone — thanks to a parishioner’s gift of some 50 of these! [Yikes, the rock band in the Racetrack just broke out in an edgy rendition of carols — I am losing my dinner…..]
Back to the BLOG — I am deeply humbled each week sharing my own faith journey with these men and women and learning about the seeds of faith that are suddenly beginning to open. It will be a real pleasure to accompany them in the coming 16 months (and to preside at the weddings of some of them too).
Together with these classes in faith formation, I had my first class for parents and sponsors (godparents) of young children I will baptize on December 27th.
Thanks to the generosity of some friends with Christmas gifts sent to my Mission Account, the books needed for the RCIA and for these seminars for sacramental preparation (Baptism, Confirmation, and Marriage) have arrived., as well as manuals for some programs anticipated for the New Year.
Introducing something new
Those who were familiar with my BLOG from the years in Russia will remember my pleasant surprise learning of the European custom of house blessings during the period of Epiphany each year. I ahd seen this a bit in Italy, but it was while in Russia that I saw how touching this custom can be for people.
I decided to do a small project with the 160 children in our “Sunday school” [taught on Saturdays…], I spoke to the teachers about the custom of the house blessing, its history and cultural background, and the things needed to help make this project work (chalk, incense and a prayer text with instructions).
Sister Bernadette Woo, who is responsible for faith formation in the parish overheard me and asked if she could do the same with her 500+ children in religious ed. Soon it spread and in the end, our pastor decided this would be a great evangelical tool for families and so we set out to make over 2,000 individual packets, one for each family, containing the prayer card with the blessing they recite, the chalk for inscribing “20+C+M+B+16”
and some pieces of incense to be kept in the home. The volunteers of the parish (an amazing group of women) met last week and set about making up the packets.
And here are the ladies (and me hiding in the background) working on this project:
And two of the volunteers and two of our catechists worked on a beautiful and creative display now in the foyer of the parish hall to help prepare people for the day we will distribute the blessed packets (January 3rd, here THE EPIPHANY).
Starting with the children
An old catechetical mission principle was to begin teaching children and through them you can draw their parents. Our Saturday religious instruction classes are a great draw — kids are brought in by parents or caretakers for the 1 hour classes and often the teachers work to include the parents in the classes and activities.
This past Saturday we had our last class for the semester, and closed the morning with a Mass in the small chapel of our parish center (on the 1st floor upstairs, a chapel used for our Japanese and Hispanic parishioners for their weekly Masses, as well as for funerals, baptisms and weddings).
The teachers did a great job preparing the children who were readers, acolytes and who also sang throughout the Mass. We decided to distribute the packets for these children (as a way of getting parents involved) on that Saturday (19th) and the response from families was great. At the end of the Mass, we tried to take a serious set of photos, but kids are kids.
Under the weather
Some know that I traveled rather lightly to Hong Kong. I mistakenly thought the temperatures here were hot and hotter; dry heat and then sauna-like steamy heat. Little did I know they actually have a winter, and that winter has come.
Suddenly nights were much cooler and our air-conditioners became space heaters. Between the fickle weather and the going in and out of heavily air-conditioned buildings and rooms, as well as public transportation, and suddenly you realize why people here sport surgical face masks so much.
Inevitably working in a church environment where you constantly are meeting and greeting people, germs quickly spread and soon I was down with my usual winter cold. I was lucky to have packed into my things some US cold medications, and those saved me from getting a worse cold than I had.
Still, I had to avoid crowds… hard to do when you have to go to the Immigration Office in the midst of rush hour and pick up my long-awaited ID card. So, armed with throat lozenges and my own face mask, I went into the throngs and happily returned with the ID card an hour later.
But the next day after doing this foolish maneuver I was more like….
I had a few days to rest a bit and do some reading and more Christmas cards (some have received these, others… well they may be coming… or not). But now, thankfully, the worst is over and I am moving around and back in the swing of things.
Advent preparations and Christmas galas
Part of the rhythm of Advent is sacramental preparation for Christmas and this year we scheduled 2 big Penance services. The first was held a week ago Friday – 2+ hours with 8 priests in the church and parish hall hearing confessions. My job was the “ENGLISH ONLY” confessional which was surprisingly busy — straight confessions for 2.5 hours. I had brought along a book to go through in between penitents, but never had a chance to even open it.
This past Monday, we priests from the parish when to St. Paul;s Convent School (a Catholic high school operated by the Sisters of St. Paul de Chartres), and sat through about 80 minutes of 300+ girls’ confessions. Here high school students all wear uniforms, and the uniforms vary from school to school.
These Sisters of Stl Paul also operate a large hospital in Causeway Bay and they host a 2-night gala dinner each year for the benefactors of the hospital. Somehow I had not known of the invitation (it was discussed in Cantonese over dinner).
Meanwhile we had our annual Christmas luncheon with the parish workers at the Cricket Club down the road from us — a multi-cultural buffet that everyone enjoyed. The pastor had some 46 along for the luncheon. I assumed we would not be having dinner so “ate accordingly.” Returning to the office 2 hours later, they realized I was not aware of the charity dinner – which is a mandatory thing for all the priests.
So, after a quick siesta, I had to get all spruced up for a night out with 500 guests (medical field personnel, the Sister and many students of the medical school and nursing school as well as hospital workers and benefactors).
Here I am all rested up and ready for another gala:
It was a very nice affair, and we from the parish were generally kept at one table – although the entire evening was generally in Cantonese.
Here is an idea of the extensive menu:
It was a successful evening for the Sisters and a great evening recognizing the contribution of their hospital to the community. Here are a few photos of those at my table.
Learning new Festivals
In the last two weeks or so I would overhear conversations about plans for the Winter Solstice festival, or Dongzhi.
I vaguely knew it was about winter but as the day drew nearer there was a lot of frantic activity among parishioners and staff.
Here is a brief description of this festival:
“The Dongzhi Festival is celebrated in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The one-day Dongzhi Festival coincides with the Winter Solstice each fall, which is the shortest day in the northern hemisphere and the longest day in the southern hemisphere.
In the past, the Dongzhi Festival was a day in which families visited each other, offered incense at temples, and took the day off from work. Large meals, similar to those eaten during Chinese New Year, would also be enjoyed during the Dongzhi Festival.”
So by 2:00 p.m. yesterday, Hong Kong was blissfully quiet and almost a ghost town. As mentioned above this is a day for family meals where small round rice-dumplings called tangyuan are the centerpiece of the menu.
“In the past, many people froze to death during China’s harsh winters so tāngyuán (湯圓) were eaten because their roundness symbolizes family unity and harmony. Tāngyuán are sweet, round dumplings made with glutinous rice flour and filled with sweet sesame, peanut, or red bean paste and served in a clear, hot, syrup or soup. Tāngyuán are still eaten on the Dongzhi Festival as a side dish, snack, or dessert, but they can also be enjoyed all year, especially when the weather is cold.”
Today, most people have to work so the Dongzhi Festival is celebrated with less fanfare.
And now the still and quiet as we wait…
Believe it or not, the races just ended as I wrote those few words above.
As I finish off my notes for the homilies for tomorrow night and Friday morning, I want to end this blog with some beautiful, evocative art from China around the mysteries of Christ’s Birth.
Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem but finding no room.
Angels with shepherds
And the Birth of Christ (from my Christmas letter)
And children visiting the Christ-child
And so as we all prepare for Christmas tomorrow evening, my prayers are with all of you from Fragrant Harbor and my first Christmas celebrating this great feast of the Nativity in this land where Maryknoll’s missions first began, awaiting on the Birth of the Lord.