A Busy, Fascinating, and Active New Year

The New Year began more officially after The Feast of the Baptism of the Lord, but for us, the rhythm of pastoral life began right after the Epiphany.

That first week resuming our regular parish and diocesan tribunal schedule also witnessed a lot of meetings and appointments making their way onto my desk calendar, desk diary and into my pocket diary.

The first off was meeting yet another young couple for the “Pre-Nuptial Investigation,” [PNI to priests], the lengthy document gathering and registration for a marriage.

Here in St. Margaret’s Church couples begin at least a year or more out from the date to get a time set in the church. With some 300 or more weddings scheduled each year (as mentioned above), it is very difficult for some to get placed on our church calendar, and many opt for weekdays rather than the busy weekends.

One such couple are Pierre Olivier and Enrica, whose wedding was scheduled for 17 March 2016. I was not sure what I was expecting when I called them to come in for their PNI (some Irish background maybe?). I met this couple and we had a little over an hour going through all of the paperwork (and documents they still would have to produce), and then carefully completing the lengthy questionnaire forms sent out by our diocese. As serious as this process is, it can get tedious and so I generally try to ease the discomfort of the very personal questions each is asked with some levity, but also taking time to make sure I answer any and all questions they might have. For many, this is the first time they ever have a serious chat with a priest.

Enrica and Oli were very good, and – as I have done with some of the other couples who I am preparing for marriage – loaded down with booklets, pamphlets and other marriage materials, I added their name to the list of 7 (and growing) couples at whose weddings I will preside here in Hong Kong this year. [Thanks to the generosity of many over Christmas, I have sufficient pre-marital materials for each couple.]

A BIG DIOCESAN CELEBRATION

On the actual date of the Epiphany, all of the priests of the diocese made their way to our diocesan seminary, Holy Spirit Seminary in Aberdeen, on the southeast side of the island.

This year the Epiphany marked both the 50th Anniversary of Priestly Ordination of our bishop, as well as his 20th Anniversary of Episcopal Ordination (together with his predecessor as Ordinary, Cardinal Joseph Zen, SDB, who was ordained bishop together with Cardinal John Tong on 6 January 1996.

This was my first visit to Holy Spirit Seminary and my ever-present guide was Father Francis LI Yu-ming, the elder priest of our rectory, who studied in this seminary back in the 1950’s.

Since we are in the “Holy Year of Mercy,” Fr. Francis and I began our visit by going through the doors of the chapel that have been designated one of the 5 places for the “Holy Doors” for this year.

Cardinal Tong's celebration 1

We visited the chapel, which is very much in a Chinese style with beautiful touches in mosaics and some interesting instruments (including hanging chimes).

Cardinal Ton'g celebration 3 Cardinal Tong's celebration 4

We strolled around the campus of this beautiful building with the dramatic hills of Aberdeen to the north. The 3rd photo below of the arched entryway is called “Canton Gate” because it was the big place where the South Chinese seminarians gathered each day to speak Cantonese — I jokingly asked where the Beijing Gate was for the northerners… and he pointed to the vast playing fields!

 

Cardinal Tong's celebration 5 Cardinal Tong's celebration 7 Cardinal Tong's celebration 6 Cardinal Tong's celebration 8

The touring ended with a great lunch in honor of our beloved pastor, Cardinal John Tong, who gave a wonderful thanksgiving speech in both Cantonese and English before saying grace and sitting down with the priests for the luncheon, making a point to also greet each table.

Cardinal John Tong Cardinal Tong's celebration 9

RCIA CONTINUES

With the new year starting, it also meant that our RCIA program would now start a new curriculum of classes.

Teaching this group (now of 23 adults) is something that I look forward to each week. There is the extra work of preparing and following a curriculum, preparing classes, books and keeping organized the names and background of each person in the class; some are unbaptized, some or baptized non-Catholics; some are lapsed Catholics; and some are Catholics seeking a deeper understanding of their faith.

Aside from having proper teaching materials in English (that were not available here, but again, thanks to the generosity of so many over Christmas, no longer an issue), I also had to find a decent, durable English translation of the Bible so that we could begin the study of the Old Testament. Over the Christmas holidays a shipment I ordered of “The New American Bible,” arrived and they are very good indeed. These were procured and shipped again through the generosity of friends. They are not a free gift, however. Each catechumen pays a “subsidized” price for their Bible, something they were all proud to do.

New Bibles

The rest of that first week was filled out with trips to my other office in the chancery to pick up or hand in judgments in nullity cases. With the changes promulgated by Pope Francis last year in his document Mitis Iudex, that went into effect on 8 December 2015, our work has changed a bit in the tribunal.

All of our cases are adjudicated by a single judge (as in the past here), but since now the former policy of appealing each sentence in the 1st Instance in a court of the 2nd Instance has been – so a large extent – suppressed, a new safeguard was put in place here to assure judicial fairness.

Now for each case we have the judge ponens – the one who writes the sentence. There continues to be a Defender of the Bond for each case, and now an Assessor for each case. Given the complexity of all marriage cases presented to our tribunal, each of these roles (ponens, defender of the bond, and assessor) are filled by canon lawyers. But here is the rub — we are only 5 active canon lawyers in the diocese, and for each case, 3 of us are working on different parts, increasing one’s work load quite a bit.

The judge or ponens can be assisted by an Auditor, but for the cases I have in English, only I can handle the Instruction phase as there are no qualified personnel to help me (and I am seriously looking for someone, anyone to do some of this), so I have to do all the background work on the case, conduct the interviews of witnesses and the petitioner (and respondent), and then write up all of this before writing my final judgment.

Over the Christmas holidays I was able to acquire a state-of-the-art dictaphone/tape Phillips recorder for the hearings and also the Dragon computer program for legal work, that is voice-sensitive and can write whatever I dictate into the recorder (the accuracy is well over 90% so far). This gadget and program will help my work a great deal.

The BAPTISM OF THE LORD, and MEETING THE PARISHIONERS

On 10 January we had the celebration of the Baptism of the Lord, and marked that day with another baptism of one of our CCD children preparing for First Communion next year.

This young boy stands out in class for his huge smile and inquisitiveness. At the meeting I have with parents and godparents, he took it over asking the most questions.

It helped to mark the fast day with a Baptism that reminded everyone in the community of the meaning of our baptism and of our faith.

Aiden Bapt 1 Aiden Bapt 5 Aiden Bapt 2 Aiden Bapt 3 Aidem Bapt 4

 

MEET THE MANDARINS!!!

As I have mentioned in other parts, although Hong Kong is now officially part of China, it has maintained the custom of using Cantonese as its official daily language (in speaking – and in writing, with a preference for the traditional style over the simplified style of writing characters). Nonetheless, the official language of the Mainland, Mandarin is making strong inroads into this territory.

A by-product of this has been the increase of Mainland (Mandarin-speaking) Chinese coming to Hong Kong to live and work, and a growing number of them either are already Catholics, or curious about the Catholic Church.

Two of the priests in my rectory are Mandarin-speaking by birth, and the younger one, Father Joseph TAN Leitao, S.V.D., has been a dynamic and zealous apostle among his people, organizing some three years ago a small community in our parish that has now grown exponentially and is one of the most energetic groups here.

To mark the 3rd anniversary of their establishment as a parochial unit in our parish, they hosted a big Gala Evening earlier in January at a private club in an office complex downtown. We all were packed up into a van and driven to the event which was a great evening of fun, laughter, sharing, and exotic food.

Father Joseph often sits near or next to me at such gatherings and knows how slightly uncomfortable I get sitting quietly for 3 hours or so as everyone else around me speaks Cantonese or Mandarin, so for this event, he co-opted a Yale University grad student who had just flown in from the States to continue his linguistic-anthropological work — and he acted as my interpreter for the evening, making it much easier.

I have grown used to some of the exotic foods that are often on display at such dinners; I am also learning the art of — when seeing something swing by me on the rotating serving table…. — learning to swing it just as swiftly to the right or left as a way of avoiding eating what I really do not like. The only down-side is that at such gala dinners it is the person to your immediate right or left who serves YOU and so you have to be careful that you have someone “simpatico” in that role, knowing that when you demurely but emphatically (and hopefully discreetly) shake your head NO I DO NOT WANT THAT — they get the hint and do not put it onto your plate or bowl.

After an opening toast and some introductions, the meal began with platter after platter brought out and placed on the revolving center serving table. My translator for Yale, still under jet-lag, started seeing the first few platters (all fish) and I broke out laughing when he said, “It looks like the Italian 7 Fishes Christmas dinner!” And it did.

It took us quite a few courses to finally get away from seafood and on to vegetables and meat platters. The variety of dishes was overwhelming, the tastes, unique for the most part, but for me, by the 8th or 9th course I was exhausted (and luckily, given the number at our table, everything was that — a taste).

Here are some photos from the Mandarin Community dinner:

Mandarin Celebration 1 Mandarin Celebration 2 Mandarin Celebration 3 Mandarin Celebration 4 Mandarin Celebration 5

MAKING WAY FOR THE LUNAR (CHINESE) NEW YEAR

Here I thought we had some breathing room to recover from all the work of Christmas, and suddenly I came home one day and found 20 miniature Mandarin orange tree plants wrapped up in our hallway and sitting room. I knew… Lunar New Year is coming as these are one of the many symbols used to decorate homes for this great celebration.

LNY orange trees

Unfortunately for us and for most of Hong Kong, this past weekend of 23-24 January marked the coldest temperatures ever recorded for this island — below 0°C (about 25 F at one point on Sunday).

Already we had temperatures dropping to the low 50’sF and even dipping into the 40’sF at night, but soon people were swarming shops trying to find winter clothes, something I never thought of packing for South China.

Between the freezing rains, and Arctic winds coming south from my former residence in the Russian Far East, I finally could not survive any longer with simply a sweater-vest and a small fleece coat. So, after consulting others on where one would possibly find US American sizes in this land of smaller people… I headed out on a cold rainy Saturday to Wan Chai (the district immediately west of us) and to the knock-off “sample” shops dotting the roads and finally found some clothes that not only fit, but were warm.

Winter comes

It took a few more days to find a street vendor with scarves and hats, but now I am ready. Fortunately I had these clothes the next day when I again had guests visiting (from Europe) who had NO WINTER CLOTHING. They managed by wearing just about everything they had packed… but with temperatures on Sunday dipping below zero, and with ice forming on the Peak — it was a struggle doing much of anything, but I did manage to walk with them some 12+ km. across downtown, and over the Kowloon.

I also went over to visit a Maryknoller who is pastor on Cheung Chao Island and the 45-minute trip by ferry this time was an exercise in sub-zero travel over water (making it much colder). The temperatures here in Hong Kong are more piercingly cold because of the constant humidity from the surrounding sea. This is a cold that is relentless.

The past weekend was so bitterly cold it was and remains the BIG topic of conversation these days – and they say this cold Arctic air will continue into the Lunar New Year.

Right now we are in our second week of nearly constant rains and today especially things were so bad I had to cancel my RCIA classes (it is not a night to be out in torrential freezing rains…. and… “Father has a head cold from not wearing a hat for the last few days!”

PREQUEL TO THE LUNAR NEW YEAR

Last Saturday evening, 23 January, our parish opened the new Lunar New Year’s festivities with the family feast, the reunion dinner (年夜飯) which we celebrate a bit early so that we do not run into conflicts with the other family reunion dinners.

Taking a cue from my trusty Wikipedia explanations of all things Chinese, we sat down to a very large that traditionally includes dumplings, chicken and pork. Fish (魚, yú) is also included, but intentionally not finished, and the remaining fish is stored overnight. The reason for this stems from a pun, as the Chinese phrase 年年有魚/餘; (nián nián yǒu yú, or “every year there is fish/leftover”) is a homophone for phrases which mean “be blessed every year” or “have profit every year”. Similarly, a type of black hair-like algae, “fat choy” (髮菜, fǎ cài, literally “hair vegetable” in Chinese), is also featured in many dishes since its name sounds similar to “prosperity”(發財, fā cái).

Here each family ordered a table in the parish hall (we had a few hundred in attendance), and they can sit from 10-14 around a table, and the cover charge was for a portable gas burner, the POT filled with all kinds of foods boiling and steaming away under tight aluminum foil, and bottles of unsweetened tea. Those who wanted had a BYOB.

For our pot (once the lid was taken off and the steam rose from each of the tables, Father Francis LI (who sat by my side as my “wing man” through this new experience), explained what was in it: pork fat, pork belly, chicken, duck, shrimp, steamed shrimp balls, abalone, various forms of fungus and mushrooms, all types of pieces of fish, processed soy bean-curd strips, bean sprouts, lettuce, crab, lotus, spinach, water lily pods, lechi (sp) nuts, and then they poured in more water, turned up the boiling and added noodles and dumplings (and rice was served on the side… as if anyone wanted any).

LNY Family Dinner 3 LNY Family dinner 5

Our pastor, Fr. John Kwan opened the dinner singing with the youth ban a song for spring (the theme of the Lunar New Year) and everyone joined in on the chorus.

LNY Family dinner 2

Then the heads of each family table pulled off the steaming aluminum paper, and as the steam rose and the pot bubbled, they began mixing the various layers of ingredients using the serving chop sticks (you eat with your own chop-sticks but never touch the food with those, always mixing and serving with chopsticks set aside for that purpose).

Here is one of the specialties found in the pot, steamed lotus flower served with fatty pork and red peppers.

LNY Family dinner 6

And here are a family beginning the meal by mixing the ingredients that have been boiled and steamed.

LNY Family dinner 4

This year the Lunar New Year begins on 8 February, and it will be the YEAR OF THE MONKEY, and in the Taichu calendar it is year 2130.

The biggest event of any Chinese New Year’s Eve is the Reunion Dinner, named as “Nian Ye Fan” mentioned above.  This meal is comparable to Thanksgiving dinner in the U.S. and remotely similar to Christmas dinner in other countries with a high percentage of Christians. In northern China, it is customary to make dumplings (jiaozi) after dinner to eat around midnight. Dumplings symbolize wealth because their shape resembles a Chinese sycee (a gold or silver ingot used as ancient Chinese currency). By contrast, in the South, it is customary to make a glutinous new year cake (niangao) and send pieces of it as gifts to relatives and friends in the coming days of the new year. Niángāo literally means “new year cake” with a homophonous meaning of “increasingly prosperous year in year out”. After dinner, some families go to local temples hours before the new year begins to pray for a prosperous new year by lighting the first incense of the year; however in modern practice, many households hold parties and even hold a countdown to the new year. Traditionally, firecrackers were once lit to scare away evil spirits with the household doors sealed, not to be reopened until the new morning in a ritual called “opening the door of fortune” (traditional Chinese: 開財門). 

If I can remember all these pointers, I will be lucky, but my calendar is now filling up with banquets, dinners and festivities stretching throughout the month of February.

It is a family occasion, and so many families had brought children experiencing their first New Year, and here Sister Bernadette Woo entertains a new member of our parish, while father Li (the hand) tries to get her to smile.

LNY Family dinner 7

As I close these BLOGs having now caught up to today, 28 January, I wish you all a prosperous YEAR OF THE MONKEY, from our house to your house! {left photo, Fathers Kwan and Tan and our building supervisor, Ah Ming; right photo, Deacon Bernard Tang, Father Kwan, Father Tan, seminarian Francis Wong, Sister Bernadette, Father Li, and me — Fr. Edward Chau was roaming around the other tables, but he was very present too}.

LNY Family dinner 8 LNY Family dinner 1

Christmas season continued – New Year’s and onward

Following the joy-filled and memorable activities of Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and the Feast of the Holy Family, and rested (sort-of) from my 3 days of touring around Hong Kong, we began preparing for the New Year.

Already in early December, I had the privilege of meeting a couple of ex-pats (the short name for all of us working here from overseas), a nice couple with the bride from Ireland and the groom from Australia. Their wedding was planned for New Year’s Eve, and thanks to the many weddings at which I presided in the US in recent years, I had a pen-drive filled with templates of wedding program booklets which this couple desperately needed.

After meeting with the couple once, and later a few times with the groom, I managed to help them create their wedding booklet in time to get it to the printers before their big day, as well as to organize instruments (an electronic keyboard from our choir) for the use of an ensemble they had hired for the wedding ceremony.

Our parish of St. Margaret’s in Happy Valley is considered one of the premier places to have a wedding. Not all parish churches in the diocese are designated by the government for weddings (something the government controls), and so we have weddings here not just for people from the parish, but from all over the island — and beyond.

The setting of our church is one of the principle draws that couples have for requesting a date here (the church, the stairs up to the church, the location, and the “wedding bell” all help). We average some 300 weddings per year in a normal year; for an “auspicious year” (dependent on the number such as this year have a “6” for 2016), the number of requests increases.

I already have a number of weddings on my schedule as we go into 2016 and so I used the opportunity of the Tovell-Wilson wedding on 31 December to take a close look on “how” we do weddings here.

Generally there are few variants from what we consider a western wedding, until we have the signing of the registry, here done generally with a parent on each side instead of the “witnesses” of Best Man and Maid (Matron) of Honor. They still are in the ceremony, but the official government registry is signed by parents, if possible.

Unlike many of the weddings I have already seen here, this one had a very limited wedding party — all children. 5 Flower Girls and 1 Page Boy (ring bearer), together with the brother of the bride and brother of the groom as the “family witness”.

They were blessed with a balmy day to close out the year, and their friends (some 140 people in all) seemed to be raring to go with a huge wedding party after the church service.

Wedding Bell ready Wedding Everone one the steps Wedding Flower Girls ready Wedding Here come the Bride Wedding signing the book

 

A RAUCOUS NEW YEAR’S EVE

Still a bit tired from the tour-guiding last days of December, I stayed up trying to usher in the New Year here in Hong Kong, but preferred to stay in rather than be out on the streets. Given the sights and sounds of midnight when the fireworks went off in the harbor, I may have been the only one ‘at home.”

Aside from the noise of these 20-minute long fireworks (so loud in my apartment which is two mountains and about 2.5 km away), the bright sky told volumes of what so many were witnessing first hand both in various vantage points around Victoria Harbor as well as from home.

NYE Fireworks Hong Kong 3 NYE Fireworks Hong Kong 2 NYE Fireworks Hong Kong 1

 

Mary Mother of God

AppleMark

The parish community gathered again on the morning of January 1st for our celebration of Mass for this start of the new year. Since we had planned to have the Blessing of the Homes done the following Sunday, most of the priests used part of the time of their homily to explain the custom and what we would be doing in the parish.

 

Epiphany – God’s Self-revelation to the Nations!

The Epiphany this year was celebrated on Sunday, 3rd January 2016, and was marked by another overflowing turnout in the church for our Mass. We had announced the beginning of the new custom (for Hong Kong) of Blessing of the Home, and so many families turned out at all the Masses to receive the instructions and the packets made earlier (some 3,000) for the Blessing of Homes that were mentioned a few blogs back.

Epiphany Blessing display 2 Epiphany Blessing display

We thought the 3,000 packets would be enough, but having the last Mass of the morning, we ran out of them (completely ran out) before most of the families had a chance to come up and get one. I had to offer a second distribution of packets the following week, and we still ran out. Now we will be more organized for the coming year.

The Feast of the Epiphany has always been important for me as it represents the heart and soul of our missionary work ad Gentes (to the nations) represented by the three kings coming from the East to pay homage to newborn Son of God. I have had a fascination with this image of the kings worshiping before the Lord, and as I did it previous years, I posted on my Facebook page some photos of other cultural depictions of this event.

Epiphany 6 Epiphany 1

The Epiphany is depicted in a mural titled "Adoration of the Magi" in the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception at Conception Abbey in Conception, Mo. Painted by Benedictine monks in the late 1800s, the artwork is the first appearance of the German Beuronese style in a U.S. church. Christians celebrate the incarnation of the divine word -- the birth of Christ -- Dec. 25. The feast of the Epiphany is Jan. 2. (CNS photo courtesy Conception Abbey) (Nov. 8, 2004)

Epiphany 3 Epiphany 10 Epiphany 9 Epiphany 4 Epiphany 5

Homily for Solemnity of Epiphany of the Lord
St. Margaret’s Church, Happy Valley

Is 60: 1-6
Ephesians 3: 2-3a, 5-6
Matt. 2: 1-12

Introduction:

Pope Benedict XVI wrote that, “The Magi – the Three Wise Men – set out because of a deep desire that prompted them to leave everything and begin a journey. It was as though they had always been waiting for that star.”
Our own response to the gift that God has given us for salvation through his Son, Jesus, is the same as the gifts of these three men. “To offer gold is to proclaim Christ’s kingship; to offer incense is to adore the Godhead; and to offer myrrh is to acknowledge his mortality,” as another writer, St. Odilo of Cluny wrote centuries ago.
We gather today to follow in the footsteps of the Magi on this journey, following the Star of Bethlehem. Let us pray that our gifts will deepen our own understanding of God’s Epiphany, his MANIFESTATION.

Homily:
Each year, the readings for this particular feast of the Epiphany has the same Gospel passage that we just read, as it is the only place where we find any mention of this wonderful, enchanting story of the three Kings who tradition has called Casper, Melchior, and Balthasar.
Over 125 years ago, a prolific writer and clergyman in the United States wrote a wonderful short story about the Magi with a twist: it was entitled “The Other Wise Man”. The author, Henry Van Dyke is also known to us through the lyrics of a hymn he wrote to the melody written by Beethoven to “Joyful, Joyful we adore Thee.”
Today, I want to re-tell Van Dyke’s story as a tale that also explains the true manifestation of Christ for us – the meaning of EPIPHANY.
The story – as created by Van Dyke – is of a fourth wise man, by the name of Artaban, who knew Casper, Melchior and Balthasar, and had agreed to join them on the journey to follow the Star of Bethlehem.
Artaban prepared for this special journey with high hopes and expectations. At great personal expense, and knowing the gifts the other three would be bringing, he gathered a bag of precious jewels to offer as his gift of homage to the newborn king. He then set out to the place where he would rendezvous with the others before they headed across mountains and desert to Bethlehem.
He was already running a bit behind schedule, and barely had enough time to meet them at the appointed place, when suddenly he comes across a sick traveler lying unattended on the side of the road. Artaban knew that stopping would jeopardize all hope of catching up with his friends before they set out, but passing by without stopping was unthinkable, unforgivable.
So he does something many of us might not do… he stops, knowing full well that in doing so he has possibly missed this chance of a lifetime to see the newborn king. Like the Good Samaritan, he nurses the man back to health, financing his care with a brilliant topaz he carries.  Once the stranger is getting better, Artaban continues on his journey. But when he arrives at the place where they planned to meet, he is told that the other Three had already left and there would be no hope of overtaking them. So, he is now forced to sell one of his precious stones, a sapphire, to hire a set of guides and equipment to get him across the mountains and desert.
When he finally arrives at Bethlehem, his friends have already left for home by another route, and he is told that Joseph and Mary have fled with the child to Egypt because Herod had earnestly begun a search for the child to kill him. The town of Bethlehem is filled with soldiers doing house to house searches, killing all baby boys they can find. Artaban seeks shelter in an inn, but when the soldiers come banging on the door, he suddenly realizes that the landlady where he is resting is in terror – as she is hiding her own baby in a back room.
Artaban quickly goes to the door, taking out a priceless ruby that he offers as a bribe to the soldiers to keep them from entering. The child is saved but another gift for the newborn king is gone.
Artaban continues his search for some 30 years with no success. He hears of Jesus and of places where people have seen him, but somehow, he is never able to be in the same place. He now enters Jerusalem for the Passover, but by this point in his life he has only one gem left in his bag, an enormous pearl of great price.
He learns of Pilate’s edict to crucify Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews, so he rushes out following the crowd to a hill outside the city called Calvary to see if he can – at last – get a glimpse of the King and offer him this last gem, the pearl, that he has carried for so long.
Along the way he sees a young girl being carted off and sold as a slave as partial payment for her family’s debts. She pleads with all passers-by to save her, and Artaban, hearing her plea and seeing her tears exchanges his last gem, the precious pearl, for her freedom.
Suddenly, with no warning, the sky grew ominously dark and the earth shook violently as never before. The sharp quake sent tiles crashing down from rooftops, and one struck Artaban a mortal blow on the head. As he lay dying on the street, bystanders heard him say – as if in a dream – “But Lord, when did I see you hungry and give you to eat; or when did I see you thirst and give you to drink; when did I see you naked and clothe you?” Then a beautiful and peaceful smile came over his face, his body relaxed, and he died in perfect peace.

This story is – of course – only fiction, but it is similar to many stories in real life each day.
Think of mothers who set aside their careers and chances for professional advancement to take care of our families and of us. Think of mothers who go out to work to provide for their families and juggle two careers. As a result, they often do not advance as far, as fast, or as high as their talents permitted because they selflessly and consistently placed their children before their careers, choosing family life before their professional lives. One day they too will ask the lord, “When did we do it for you?”
And think of fathers of families who work long and hard hours to provide the best for their families, often to offer them opportunities they never had themselves. We know of men who courageously step off the corporate ladder of success to spend time with their children or to avoid being caught up in corruption of a company or agency. Their careers are stopped, stalled, or sidetracked as a result, but one day they will hear the Lord say, “What you did honestly and faithfully, you did for me!”
In our world surrounded as we are by so many scandals and stories of corruption, greed, jealousy and disputes, we often overlook the many good stories of self-sacrifice, selflessness and self-giving that are all around us – stories of lives inspired by the story of the Star of Bethlehem
Today we will begin a new year with a new Catholic custom celebrated at this time of Epiphany, the Blessing of the Home! It is in the home that we learn the true meaning of the gifts of the Magi. As we take the blessed packets today and gather our family this evening or some other evening and say the prayers and mark our homes with the symbols of this day (20+C+M+B+16), let us pray that we can be like the Fourth Wise Man, helping others to find Christ, the King, and joining with them and all nations falling prostrate before the LORD!

 

 

 

 

 

A Post-Christmas Adventure: Discovering Hong Kong

Just as the Feast of the Holy Family ended, the presence in town of some friends from Europe who managed to find me, gave me an opportunity for three days to play tourist and finally to push out to new (and exciting) frontiers in Hong Kong and its surrounding area.

The first adventure was the start of multiple trips across Victoria Harbor using the historic and adventurous “Star Ferry” first operated in 1880 to cross form Hong Kong island to Kowloon. In nearly every guide book about Hong Kong, this ferry is mentioned on the “must see” list, and it is a much nicer and more exciting trip to cross the harbor by ferry than to cross it by subway passing deep under the harbor.

Boarding the ferry at Central from Pier 8, you go through an old turn-style (think of NYC subways of a half-century ago), once the ferry disgorges passengers from the previous crossing, the gates open, and men, women and children, young and old, many carrying enormous and heavy baggage, run down the pier to the rickety gangplank across the edge to the lower deck (the best one for taking photos, despite the noise and fumes from the diesel engines in the center of the deck).

You pull away for the 12-minute or so ride, marveling at the sight of Hong Kong with the iconic skyscrapers that mark its profile: HSBC, Bank of China, Jardine House (with the memorable round windows on every floor), the soaring towers of One and Two International Finance Centre, and countless others. If you time the trip right, at 8:00 p.m. the lights on all the buildings on both side of the harbor burst with imagery, dancing lights, and whimsy that reflects off the waters of the harbor. For Christmas, it was especially entertaining with so many Christmas lights and designs added to what is already quite a show.

Arriving on the opposite side you are in Tsim Sha Tsui (or TST) the entry way for Kowloon.

Hong Kong already is overcrowded with its population numbering some 7.24 million inhabitants with the median age being 45-54 for both men and women (but women being 53.8% of the population). Add to this dense population the crowds of ex-pats and tourists who arrived for the Christmas-New Year’s holidays and you can begin to imagine the density of crowds at every step of our 3-day “exposure tour” of Hong Kong.

It took us over 25 minutes just to break free of the crush of crowds arriving at Ocean Terminal (a shopoholic’s idea of heaven, nearly a half-mile of 2- or 3-levels of covered top line shops and boutiques).

We finally broke free onto Canton Road and headed north trying to find someplace to eat, and discovered a hidden alleyway that one gets to by walking up a flight of steps into a building, going through the upper floor and out into this alley that had over 40 restaurants on 3 floors on each side: Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thai, Indian, Malaysian, Nepali, Indonesian, Italian, German, Irish pub, Spanish, Portuguese, and eclectic fusions of any of the above.

We were waved into one place that was brightly lit with fluorescent lights and people sitting on small stools around tiny tables. Walking in, we realized we were the only non-Chinese, but no one seemed to notice. Soon a small table in the back near the kitchen was cleaned off, wiped down, and a set of chopsticks and tea cups were laid out and we sat to a very enjoyable Cantonese dinner of fish, rice, chicken, pork and bok choy and two full tea pots of green tea.  The dinner cost less than $10.

Fortified by this wonderful meal we made our way back to the ferry pier and were able to get great shots of the other side, with the lights glistening off the water.

Star Ferry pier Leaving on Star Ferry Massive crowds at Tsim Sha Tsui Alley of delight Hong Kong by night Me at TST

The following day, with better weather on our side, we made the trek up to The Peak (Victoria Peak), taking the tourist “Peak Tram” up the side of this 552 meter mountaintop, that rises almost vertically up the mountain attached to a steel pulley of sorts — a harrowing ride as you pass 40- and 50-storey buildings on each side.

Although it was a gray overcast day, the views from the top made the 40 minute wait on line worthwhile. But, not wanting to wait another 40 minutes to get back down from the mountaintop, I found a taxi stand and we drove back.

Another view of the peak with mountains of Kowloon and China in the distance From the Peak

We made a circuitous route back on the bottom to the western edge of SoHo (Mid-Levels) to another tourist site, the Man Mo Temple, nestled into a small area on Hollywood Road. This is a Taoist shrine dedicated to the gods of literature (Man) and war (Mo), built in1847 during the Qing dynasty by wealthy Chinese merchants.

It has a great history, and is filled all day with worshipers and the curious (such as us) who made it through the portals into this dimly lit and heavily scented shrine filled with the smoke of many Joss sticks of incense burning, and the sounds of drums and clanging of cymbals as people prayed.

The entryway from the courtyard into the temple is marked by an enormous free-standing red, black and gold lacquer door, behind which hang dozens of earth colored spirals suspended from the ceiling that are burning incense coils.

Up a few stairs from the well of coils is the altar where the faithful place their burning joss sticks in pots of sand, occasionally banging a drum or clanging a cymbal to emphasize the prayers.

As you leave, you see the Lit Shing Kung, or “saints’ palace” with images of other Taoist and Buddhist deities or personages.

Buddhist scenes 1 Buddhist scenes 2 Buddhist scenes 3 Buddhist scenes 4 Buddhist scenes 5

There were many more adventures in these three days, including excursions through Causeway Bay and the shopping malls, meals in back alleys (some great food most of the time), a return to that alley in Kowloon for Korean barbecue, touring Central, and finally a trip out to Lantau Island (where the new airport is located) and a visit to the amazing Ngong Ping Plateau, site of the Tian Tan Buddha, the largest sitting Buddha in the world, a 202-ton, 23 meter high statute of Buddha sitting atop a large bronze lotus flower.

The trip up to this plateau is usually done by gondola cars, but the wait was over 2 hours and so we opted for the less-scenic bus ride up the treacherous mountain roads (waiting only 1.5 hours for the bus!).

Arriving in the late afternoon at the peak, we walked onto the grounds of the Po Lin Monastery and made our way (with hundreds of pilgrims) to the foot of the status, looking up the vast 268 steps up that stared at me. My mind was saying “Yes, you can do this!” But my legs were saying, “No way!” But here it was mind and will over body and up I went… and once you go up (on the right side) there is no way to go down unless you make it to the top.

The view from the top (at the base of the lotus flower) is spectacular from all side, especially looking down to the monastery in the distance.

The climb back was not too bad, but it is true what they say about climbing down stairs… it was just as hard, if not harder on knees and feet.

At the base we had a chance to witness a group of Buddhist pilgrims joining the monks in afternoon prayers and a sacrifice, a huge bonfire consuming piles and piles of joss sticks bought as sacrificial offerings.

At the end of this long 3-days of walking, climbing, waiting, crossing, traveling by ferry, tram, bus, car, Metro and feet… it was nice to finally unwind with a cold glass of beer and toast the last days of 2015, and all that had occurred in that memorable year.

Ngong Ping Plateau Visiting Lantao and Buddhist monastery Buddha Buddhist scenes 6 Buddha Stairs to Buddha Top of the stairs Po Lin Monastery Statues of gods Buddhist scenes 7 Buddhists priests preparing oblation Survivng a long day

A Memorable First Christmas in Hong Kong

When I last posted to this Blog, we were coming close to the joyous feast of Christmas, and the Christmas season here is highly anticipated and celebrated, just as much as in many other countries, but always with that special Asian/Chinese/Hong Kong touch.

After a number of pastoral and planning meetings, and blessed as we were with warm and sunny weather leading up to Christmas Eve, the work began transforming our large parish hall (seating capacity about 550 on two levels) into a place for worship for the Christmas Midnight Mass.

This multi-purpose hall with a large stage and rooms off the back of the stage, and an upper balcony seemed to present a daunting challenge to make it into a place for prayer and worship but thanks to the work of my predecessors here and even more to a dedicated staff of volunteers, within a few hours we completed the work of setting out the chairs, the decorations (including real Christmas trees), and setting up the stage as an altar/sanctuary space.

Below left is taken from the entryway, and on the right the view from the altar.

Xmas set-up1 Xmas set-up2

A Holy Christmas Night

Already by 10:00 p.m. as we opened the church and the hall for the people, the crowds were enormous. Mind you, we had 4 Midnight Masses scheduled to deal with the crowds: 2 Masses in Cantonese and 2 Masses in English at midnight.

It was a bit comic as the servers and I made it to the entry of the hall just as the pastor, Father John Kwan and his large group of altar servers was passing next to me to enter the front door of the church (we joked about “who would finish first” — he won!).

Both church and hall choirs had rehearsed for weeks, and each had a 30-minute period of caroling before Mass, which helped both get people seated without too much nose, but also set a prayerful tone. There were some last-minute changes when I had to remove some open space we had created for communion, and then change the way communion would be distributed, but at 5 minutes to 12 Midnight, we were ready.

It seems that most churches that use traditional Christmas carols throughout the world open with the same Adeste Fidelis – O Come All Ye Faithful, and Hong Kong was no exception. Actually both the church choir and our choir had the same opening hymn (in English!), adding a bit to both the celebration and confusion.

Getting into the hall took some effort as there was SRO (standing room only) on the floor level and the balcony, that has a limit we must follow, was already completely full. And yet, despite the overcrowding and limited seating (seats were rather small and locked together to make sure we had maximum space usage), everyone sang, and listened, and prayed in a way that made the celebration very special.

The Mass marked one of the most memorable Christmas celebrations I have had in many years. The packed church, the joy-filled singing and moments of quiet, and looking out and over nearly 600 people packed into this hall caught me a few times, wondering to myself, “How did I end up here, Lord?”

Here are a few photos of the Midnight Mass.

Midnight 2 Midnight 1c Midnight 1b Midnight 2a Midnight 3 Midnight 3a Midnight 5 Midnight 6 Midnight 7 Midnight 7a Midnight 8 Midnight 9

And here is a photo taken of the coordinator of our English community, Mrs. Angela Leung, who has done so much to organize the community in the year-long absence of a priest-pastor for the group, and who is the one who has managed through great patience and charm to teach me the way things are done correctly here.

Christmas Morning

After the 4 Midnight Masses, we had the usual Sunday morning schedule for Christmas Day, which meant I was the lucky priest who could “sleep in.’ But the excitement of the night before, as well as a 2:00 a.m. SKYPE call with my sister, Caren, had me up at 5:30 a.m. and ready to go.

One of the priests who lives with me (and who has been seen in previous photos), Father Joseph TAN Leitao, S.V.D., the youngest in our community here at St. Margaret’s, was fortunate to have his parents and another relative visit from their home in Hebei province, just south of Beijing. Due to difficulties in worshiping openly as Catholics, they made the trek south to visit their son and spend a few days here in Hong Kong. [Mainlanders can visit Hong Kong, but for a limited time only. To extend their time, they have to cross the border to the north of the New Territories, and spend a few days on the “other side,” then they can return, again for a limited time.]

When I went to get coffee on Christmas morning, our kitchen was alive with laughter as Fr. Joseph’s mother and relative joined our housekeeper Ng, and assisted by Joseph’s father and Father Francis LI Yu-ming, our oldest priest (but also from the mainland, and so a Mandarin-speaker as are Joseph’s family), were all sitting around a small table making Chinese dumplings for Christmas. It was quite a production and quite enjoyable to watch. once the filling for the dumplings was prepared (by the men), the women set out making and then shaping each individual wrapping for the the dumplings and then filling and folding each one carefully.

 

Below are in the back row, Joseph’s father and Father Francis, and then at the table, Ng, Joseph’s relative and his mother. Then Fr. Francis and I traded places for a photo.

Xmas morning 1 Xmas morning 2

 

CHRISTMAS MORNING -2

nativity1 chinesechristmasnativity_0171

After another period in confession before Mass, I was vested and with nearly the exact same crew of servers as the night before, we processed into the church for our 12:30 p.m. Christmas Day Mass, again absolutely packed and with standing room only.

The crowds at our weekly Masses have been increasing exponentially in recent weeks, but added to them were the many children of ex-patriots who live and work in Hong Kong, or the children of our Hong Kong parishioners who were home from their university studies in Europe and the US/Canada.

It was a truly spiritual moment praying with this community, and experiencing their own celebration of the Birth of Christ.

Xmas Day 1 Xmas Day 2 Xmas Day 3 Xmas Day 4 Xmas Day 5 full house Xmas Day 6 preaching Xmas Day 7 Xmas Day 8 me and Jesus w arms Xmas Day 9

And here is an impromptu photo of the servers (all very well trained) and our spirited choir.

Xmas Day 12 Xmas Day 11 choir

Feast of the Holy Family

Nativity 2 Flight to Egypt Holy Family

Our celebration of Christmas continued with the Feast of the Holy Family on December 27th, and we marked the day with the baptisms of three of our children preparing for First Holy Communion next May. Our practice with the children’s CCD is that those who are not baptized receive Baptism a full year or 18 months before First Communion (that here in Hong Kong is when they are 9 years of age). Inasmuch as in one family there was another son in Kindergarten, I also let him “slip in to the mix” for Baptism with his older brother.

For once, I did not have photos taken, but as a priest and missionary, it is always a special privilege to baptize someone into our faith and into our community, and this day was no exception.

With the end of Mass on this Sunday after Christmas, we more or less brought our Christmas to a close (there is more to come, but this BLOG will be published in parts as it may get too long).

I did want to share with you my Holy Family Homily or at least a poem I red at one point in the homily, as my reflection on this day and season. The poem is taken from the internet and has made the rounds, but it is a great reflection for parents and children.

Homily for the Feast of the Holy Family
St. Margaret’s Church, Happy Valley

Ecc. 3:2-6, 12-14
Col. 3:12-21
Luke 2:41-52
Today, the Church celebrates the feast of the Holy Family. So, inevitably the focus of the Scripture readings will be on family life. And to help us even more on this focus and reflection, we celebrate this morning the baptism of 3 young members into our community – a community that is also a family, a spiritual family. We welcome the Delanoue-Legarda and Mak families today, and their children, Emma Lilli, Jo Marchael and Pok Myron.
When we look at the family, just what kind of analogy could we use to describe a family today?
Since this is the Christmas season, something that used to be very common as a gift during this time of year provides an apt analogy – the family is like a Christmas fruit cake – mostly sweet and with some nuts; some may have more nuts! Nonetheless, we still have to admit that family life, like a fruit cake, can be quite messy.
It’s said that a family is like a social unit that is concerned with some kind of space.
The father is concerned with finding a parking space, the children are concerned with outer space, the mother is concerned with looking for more ample living space.
And when the family has to share the same space – and that is where challenges come in. Because problems can arise when we feel that our own space is encroached upon or has been trespassed. And when our space is encroached upon or is trespassed, then communications become fragile and tensed. We will be quick to speak and to lash out, but we will not be that ready to listen with attention.
Let me quote from a poem entitled “Harsh Words”:
I ran into a stranger as he passed by.
“Oh excuse me please” was my reply.
He said, “Please excuse me too;
I wasn’t watching for you.”
We were very polite, this stranger and I.
We went on our way and we said good-bye.
But at home a different story is told,
how we treat our loved ones, young and old.
Later that day, cooking the evening meal,
my son stood beside me very still.
When I turned, I nearly knocked him down.
“Move out of the way,” I said with a frown.
He walked away, his little heart broken.
I didn’t realize how harshly I’d spoken.
While I lay awake in bed,
God’s still small voice came to me and said,
“While dealing with a stranger, common courtesy you use,
but the children you love, you seem to abuse.
Go look on the kitchen floor,
you’ll find some flowers there by the door.”
“Those are the flowers he brought for you.
He picked them himself; pink, yellow and blue.
He stood very quietly not to spoil the surprise,
and you never saw the tears that filled his little eyes.”
By this time, I felt very small,
and now my tears began to fall.
I quietly went and knelt by his bed;
“Wake up, little one, wake up,” I said.
“Are these the flowers you picked for me?”
He smiled, “I found ’em out by the tree.”
“I picked ’em because they’re pretty like you.
I knew you’d like ’em, especially the blue.”
I said, “Son, I’m very sorry for the way I acted today;
I shouldn’t have yelled at you that way.”
He said, “Oh, Mom, that’s okay.
I love you anyway.
I said, “Son, I love you too,
and I do like the flowers, especially the blue.”

In today’s gospel, we heard about Mary and Joseph, and the 12 year-old Jesus going to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. It was an annual event for most Jewish families living within a few days distance from Jerusalem but this time round something happened. After the feast, Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, without his parents knowing.

Needless to say, Mary and Joseph must have panicked during those three days until they found Him in the temple. The gospel passage simply said that they were overcome when they saw Him, but that said a lot about how Mary and Joseph felt – the anxiety, the stress, the frustration, the anger (?). And we can certainly feel the seriousness of the tone in what Mary said to Jesus, “My child, why have you done this to us? See how worried your father and I have been looking for you.”

And the reply of Jesus was nowhere near consoling, and as if that was not enough, it was also confusing to say the least. That would have easily erupted into a parent-child quarrel and harsh words would fly about to cut and scorch. Yet, no further words were exchanged, maybe because Mary and Joseph did not understand what Jesus meant. But Mary stored up all these things in her heart. Joseph might be thinking that it would be easier to build a house for God than to raise the Son of God. Yes, whether it is the Son of God or not, it was never easy to be parents and it never will be.

Yes, there is that 4th Commandment – Honour your father and your mother, but we all know that we have broken that commandment time and again. Yet as much as that 4th Commandment is directed at children, there is also an underlying spiritual aspect to it directed to parents. This underlying spiritual aspect is that parents have this God-given authority over their children. But this authority is not to be used to drive their children to resentment and make them feel frustrated, but rather to teach them the virtue of honor.

Beyond the duty to care for their children and to provide for their needs, parents have a spiritual authority over their children. They are expected to raise their children in their faith, to bring them for Baptism and help prepare them for the other sacraments at the proper time. It also means that parents pray for their children. And it is not just praying for them when they are applying for entry into a particular school or university, and when they are taking their exams. Parents will have to exercise their spiritual authority over their children when they are ill, when they have gone wayward, when they are in trouble or in danger. Any parent who has stayed up late when a teenager or young adult does not come home on time knows how quickly we turn to prayer.

Parents have this power to call upon God’s protection and blessing over their children. And that is why it is so important that parents understand and exercise this spiritual power. One way to do this is to pray together as a family not only here in church each week but also each day at home, at meals, and at bedtime, in order that this spiritual power be manifested and bear spiritual fruits in their children.

One of the difficult challenges in family life is family quarrels. Family quarrels are bitter, especially when they are between parents and children. They can be about any issue, and can spring up unexpectedly and catch us totally unprepared. Whatever it is, family quarrels are bitter and painful. They are like wounds in the skin that won’t heal easily. Think again about the poem I read earlier. Often arguments arise when we are not attentive or listening carefully to each other.

But again, parents have this spiritual power to call upon God’s blessing so that there can be peace and unity in the family. Family peace and harmony cannot be taken for granted, but are qualities that each family member must strive follow to contribute to that peace and harmony in the home.

And after the Temple episode, Jesus went down with Mary and Joseph to Nazareth and lived under their authority. There He increased in wisdom, in stature and in favour with God and with others. As it was for Jesus, so may it be for parents and children in the family. As St. John Paul II wrote: As the family goes, so goes the nation and so goes the whole world in which we live.