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



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.




  1. Rosemary Cassese · January 22, 2016

    You look so happy! I am so glad for you and in answer to your question at Midnight Mass ~ you are exactly where you are supposed to be!


  2. michaerl zunno · January 22, 2016

    Bravo JOe+Enjoy every minute while doing what you entered MAryknoll to do.Not like our vision(ugh) give them Jesus and more Jesus, then all the good works that follow make sense for usmzunno@mRY


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