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.]


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


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.


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



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


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!”


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

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