The end of the Lenten Journey and into Easter Glory and Light!

The entire period of my first Lent in Hong Kong/China went by so quickly, I hardly had time to take all of it in. My days and evenings were filled with meetings, classes, commuting between my parish in Happy Valley (Causeway Bay) and the tribunal office (Mid-Levels), and constant preparation: preparing homilies, reading and writing nullity cases, conducting “instructions” (the hearing for a case), attending planning meetings for Holy Week celebrations, training the altar servers, lectors and choirs, and confessions…. hours and hours in confession.

From the 3rd through the 5th Fridays of Lent, I would be in the confessional from 6:45 p.m. through to about 9:00 mp.m. non-stop. Then, given the number of Catholic schools within our parish boundaries, we would have mornings and afternoons set aside to here from 200-350 confessions per day of students. To this were those who called for an appointment to make a confession in my office, and then two days of parish confessions before and during Holy Week.

In this Holy Year of Mercy, I had given a talk to Catholic women on the theme of mercy, and used the talk as part of a short article on mercy and reconciliation, a theme I returned to on the last 3 Sundays of Lent with parables of people dying in tragedies, the story of the Prodigal Son, and that of the woman caught in adultery. Much of the preaching developed the theme of forgiveness, and how this is something each individual can do; and then that of reconciliation that takes two (reconciling one with another).

I also repeated a theme of the First Sunday in Lent where I used the tune and lyrics of a 1960’s song, “I Gotta Be Me” as well as the song from the musical “Godspell” “By my side” as two theme songs for Lent, promising the community to tie this all together somehow on Easter Sunday.

Just before my feast day (19 March) I had the pleasure of finally inaugurating my own part in the “wedding factory” that is St. Margaret’s parish in Happy Valley, the parish that hosts the most marriages per year.

The government of Hong Kong “designates” churches that can hold wedding ceremonies (churches, temples, and locales) and so not every Catholic church has the designation, and because of this, couples register not in their parish of domicile, but where they can find a date available. St. Margaret’s with his internal beauty and the large entry with the dramatic staircase and portico is a favorite for most brides.

Many will remember the luncheon I hosted for the couples over whose weddings I would be presiding in the coming weeks and months.

couples-i-will-marry-this-year1

Well, the couple on the extreme right, Enrica Chan and Pierre-Olivier Bakalag were the first to have me preside. Although the weather was the usual cold, gray and rainy weather we expect in March (winter), the wedding was a very happy event, and I was proud of this wonderful couple, the first of my intercultural weddings (which will be many).

Bakalag wedding 2

Pierre’s mother and grandmother made the long journey from Yaondè, Cameroon to witness their son and grandson’s big step, and Enrica’s parents flew in from Toronto. It was quite an international wedding, with many of Oli’s teammates (Pierre-Olivier is called Oli for short) showed up as did a whole class of Enrica’s students, all dressed in their formal prom tuxes for this happy occasion. It was a nice way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, though as you can see, no one was wearing green, but we did have quite a mix of colors!

On my feast day of March 19th, I began with a seminar for parents and godparents for children to be baptized after Easter. Given the international nature of the English community (that includes, English speakers from many countries, as well as French, German, Swiss, Belgium, Italian, and Spanish couples as well as from many Asian nations such as Malaysia, Japan, Singapore and the Philippines) the mix of couples was refreshing and challenging as they all come to these sessions with varying degrees of background in the faith and in the Church.

For many from Europe, they need to attend these courses to get a letter of “delegation” from us to have the children baptized in Europe (since baptisms and marriages are supposed to be regulated by where the person receiving the sacrament has domicile or resides). If one wants to receive either of these two sacraments outside of their residential parish, they simply have to get a letter from the pastor (and 99% of the couples have no idea about this). So I have mentioned it a few times in announcements in church, and we had quite a turnout of couples for the seminar.

Later that day, I presided at the baptism of a young child whose parents are from Ireland and live and work here in Hong Kong. I had met the couple and exchanged notes with them before the event, but never would have expected them to have over 75 guests attending (with some 6 godfathers for the boy baptized!!!). Well Rory will have lots of god-fatherly protection in his life.

HOLY WEEK BEGINS

Before we knew it, Palm Sunday arrived (together with especially bad rainy weather). For two days before the weekend, we had teams of volunteers working for hours behind the church and our parish center, washing and then cutting in small branches the palm fronds that had been imported from China and came covered in dust and pollen from their place of origin.

But it amazed me (and continues to amaze me) how coordinated this parish is in preparing the liturgies of Holy Week. They knew exactly how many palm branches would be needed, and our storerooms were filled with all the other supplies (Paschal candles, charcoal, incense, hosts, vestments, special books for the entire week in both Chinese and English, and special decorations both for the church and the parish hall). Rehearsals were conducted for each and every ceremony and the altar servers (we have a crew of some 60) under the careful guidance of their leaders (and ME!).

PALM SUNDAY

Because of the Passion Reading for the Gospel at each Mass, we were literally going from Mass to Mass with about 5 minutes in between. Yet, it all went very smoothly. The liturgy of Palm Sunday saw the church filled to capacity despite the awful rainy weather.

For the meditation after the reading of the Passion, I chose a favorite theme of the red rose — and for the first time, I was able to get my hands on a BIG rose flower with thorns! The theme is how through the rough and violent thorns the plant gives birth to a beautiful, fragrant bud and flower (so through pain comes glory). The thorns were very sharp (I was cut twice handling it during the homily).

But with this theme, and the beauty of the liturgy we began the week.

Palm Sunday icon 2 Palm Sunday 1 Palm Sunday 2 Palm Sunday 3 Palm Sunday 4 palm-sunday Icon

NEW VISITORS TO HONG KONG

A few days before Holy Week, we in Maryknoll welcomed to Hong Kong four seminarians from Seoul, Korea. These young men who have already completed their philosophy studies at the seminary (in Inchon if I am not mistaken), and their required military service, are now in a special formation program partially sponsored by Maryknoll for service in a very difficult and challenging place, that has not had priests for over 65 years. This is so similar to my own experience when I went to the Russian Far East in 2001 that I have a special interest in their success.

Because of this, I invited these men, Francis, Stephen, Matthew, and Gabriel, to participate (if they wanted) in the liturgies in my parish (they are here to gain a better fluency in English while also spending time in the mainland studying Mandarin).

Matthew Francis Gabriel Stephen from Seoul

So to my happy surprise, they took me up on the invitation and arrived in time to participate in the Palm Sunday liturgy. They were placed in one of two narthexes of our church (spaces to the right and left of the sanctuary). For many of the photos of Holy Week, they acted as my photographers which may explain the odd angle of some photos.

After Mass, as I had to meet one of the post-Easter brides (see below), and then meet with the choir, one of the senior altar servers (a solicitor for one of the major banking/investment fund houses in Hong Kong) took them out to a great lunch at the Cragengower Cricket Club!

After I finished my own works, I took them on a quick grand tour of downtown – taking the tram outside the church from Happy Valley to the HSBC headquarters, then a walk through Central, and then onto the Mid-Levels escalator for about 3/4 of a mile uphill, then down Ladder Road (an apt name since it is a steep climb up and down) to Man Mo Temple, then through the labyrinth of 1 story-above-ground passage ways that connect most of the downtown buildings so you never get wet in the rain… then through the IFC buildings and mall, and eventually on to their first ever ferry ride on the Star Ferry to Kowloon, a nice dinner and the finale being the laser light and sound show across the harbor.

Korean seminarians 1 Korean seminarians 2 Korean seminarians on Star Ferry

I got them safely into a taxi back outside the ferry terminal and off to Stanley where they are living now.

The four of them made every one of our Holy Week services, and the parishioners were very happy to meet them, and hopefully they will continue to feel at home at St. Margaret’s whenever visiting Hong Kong.

CHRISM MASS

Again in rain we (over 200 priests ministering and serving in the Diocese of Hong Kong) made our way to the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception for the Holy Thursday Chrism Mass. Given the rain and the logistics of moving 200 of us in vestments from the diocesan offices to the cathedral under a phalanx of volunteers trying to protect us under umbrellas, the procession took over 25 minutes into the cathedral.

The Mass was beautifully celebrated by our bishop, Cardinal John Tong, with his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen, S.D.B., concelebrating (and marking the 10th anniversary of his own elevation to the college of cardinals), our two auxiliary bishops and so many priests, both diocesan and religious/missionary surrounding the altar, together with over 60 permanent deacons.

The vessels used for the sacred oils are enormous glass amphoras, with the one for Sacred Chrism placed on a special table in the sanctuary surrounded by spring flowers. we renewed our fealty to the Bishop and to our priestly vows,  and after the Mass as priests collected the oils for use now at Easter and for the rest of the year, the diocesan center hosted a large luncheon for us all with the Cardinal, and then we all headed home for the Holy Thursday evening Mass.

Chrism Mass 1

THE MASS OF THE LORD’S SUPPER

Given the large number of faithful in our parish (which is the largest parish in the diocese in terms of total number of Catholics), we divide the Triduum services among 3 venues: St. Margaret’s Church, the parish center, and Christ the King chapel in Causeway Bay. The English community alternates between St. Margaret’s Church and the parish hall with one part of the Chinese community, while the overflow form that latter community also attended services at Christ the King chapel.

Given this, we also host the smaller English communities that have Sunday Masses at Christ the King as well as at the Jesuit college (Wau Yen) and the Dominican college (Rosaryhill) in our parish.

For Holy Thursday and Good Friday, we (the English community) were in the parish hall, that – as at Christmas – was nicely and warmly decorated for the Holy Thursday Mass. However for a change we decided to have only ONE repository and that would be in the church, so that once I finished the English Mass, the faithful from my community would join the larger Chinese community for adoration in the church.

Since Holy Thursday is a workday, the number of people attending is usually small, so we were caught off guard with a larger-than-normal attendance this year.

Even before Pope Francis officially changed the discipline of the “Washing of the Feet,” we had opted to include men and women for this ceremony.

For the two evenings of Holy Thursday and Good Friday, the community from the Christ the King Chapel take responsibility for preparing the liturgy with me, providing the choir and lectors for the readings, while we provide the servers and other personnel for setting up, so it is a bit daunting to work with two different groups, but thanks to so much good cooperation, it went well.

Below, I am chatting with Angela Leung, one of our parish leaders, and another Angela (from Christ the King) while the lectors and servers go over their roles, and I checked in with two of my soon-to-be brides, Nelsilya (with her future mother-in-law from NY) and Hiroka – both who are catechumens who would be baptized on Holy Saturday.

Holy Thursday 00 Holy Thursday 01 Holy Thursday 03 Holy Thursday 02 Holy Thursday 04

The liturgy went very well and finished just as the procession was starting in the church so there was an almost seamless meeting of the two communities for quiet adoration.

Holy Thursday 1 Holy Thursday 2 Holy Thursday 3 Holy Thursday 03 Holy Thursday 4 Holy Thursday 5 Holy Thursday 6 Holy Thursday 7 Holy Thursday 8 Holy Thursday 9' Holy Thursday 10

GOOD FRIDAY AND THE PASSION OF THE LORD

The Good Friday liturgies all took place at 3:00 p.m. as this is not generally a work day in Hong Kong.

We began the day with Stations of the Cross at 11:00 p.m. and I had 45 minutes before that of confessions, and then again from 11:45 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. for more confessions.

At 3:00 p.m. the hall was filled to capacity (some 600 on two floors) for the Liturgy of the Passion which begins with the quiet prostation by the presider, the Reading of the passion by St. John, the the special prayers or intentions, the Veneration of the Cross, and Communion.

Since we have the practice of only a single cross (and a rather large and heavy one at that), I decided to hold it alone for the entire period of veneration that took about 40 minutes.

The entire service lasted from 3:00 to nearly 5:00 p.m. given the number of people attending.

Good Friday Good Friday 6 Good Friday 7 Good Friday 8 Good Friday 9' Good Friday 10

HOLY SATURDAY

Holy Saturday morning was packed with things to do – including printing of my homilies for the Vigil and Easter Day, finishing the Prayers of the Faithful and announcements for the weekend, conduct my high school RCIA class, and then rush down to the church for altar server rehearsal and rehearsal with the catechumens for the Baptism that night.

It was funny hearing the altar servers use my new “name’ — SUPER PRIEST — after watching me hold the cross alone for the 40-some minutes the day before (something that had never happened, as the priests take turns, but I was on my own so I really had no choice, although two of the servers who are university students and built like half-backs were ready to step in if I wanted).

So… I am now “super priest” — which I given the release of the Superman film this weekend, is not that bad!

pirest minion 1

By 6:00 p.m. I was back in church to help with the set-up for the ceremony, then time for a quick cold shower to wake up, a cup of espresso, and soon we began the solemn liturgy on the portico of the church with the lighting and blessing of the Easter Fire, the inscription of the large Paschal Candle, and its lighting, and then carrying it carefully into the dark church – the only light coming from the flame of the candle (and the flash of our photographer). “The Light of Christ!”

Easter 2016 - Beginning the Easter Liturgy at church doors with lighting of fire Easter 2016 - Inscribing Candle and placing 45 nails into it Easter 2016 - Lighting the Easter Candle Eaaster 2016 - The Light of Christ at church entrance Easter 2016 - Carrying the Easter Candle

Once we reached the altar and placed the candle in the large stand and incensed it, I began the singing of the Exultet by the light of the candle and a small (but powerful) light that was used for the Liturgy of the Word until the Gloria.

Easter 2016 - Singing the Exultet

This was the first year that we used 8 readings (of the 9 assigned) for the Liturgy of the Word, but everyone stayed very prayerfully quiet, and the readers did an excellent job in preparing all of the readings, and the choir put together a great last-minute surprise of singing all of the responses for the readings despite many misgivings some weeks ago when I first suggested they do this.

Then I intoned the GLORY TO GOD, the bells rang out, the lights went on, the candles on the altar were lit, and our celebration took on even greater momentum as we moved to the Gospel.

Easter 2016 - Opening Prayer after the Liturgy of the Word Easter 2016 - Our choir Easter 2016 - Proclaiming the Gospel Easter 2016 - Homily jokes Easter 2016 - singing parts of the homily

The celebrants gesturing in the homily was because I had begun Lent (see above) incorporating two songs as a meditation, and at this point in the homily, I changed the words a bit (I inculturated or “baptized” them), and we had a sort of hum and sing along…

Finally it was time to call forward the 5 candidates for Baptism and bless the Baptismal Water (in a large Chinese urn for this service, and later in a gigantic copper vessel for the rest of Easter), and begin the Baptismal rites.

Since the font is at the front door of the church, but given my hesitancy to try to move the Paschal Candle, after I blessed the large vessel of water we carried a full glass pitcher of the water in procession with the elect and their sponsors to the font for the Baptism and receiving the white garment, and then they returned to the altar to receive the Baptismal Candle and then joined by another of my brides-to-be, we began Confirmation.

The 5 elect were Adam (Philip) [their baptismal name is in parantheses], Nelsilya (Frances Xavier Caprini), Siwen (Matilda), Hiroka (Clare), and Viola (Victoria). Adam is only 9, but has just survived two years of cancer and chemotherapy and so we made the decision to give him all 3 sacraments of initiation. Nelsilya is from Indonesia and will marry in the church here on 22 April; Hiroka is Chinese/Japanese (a rare mix, but with absolutely wonderful parents from Hong Kong and Kyoto), and will marry a man from Ireland on 2 April; then Siwen is from the Mainland but now with an Australian passport and working in Taiwan; while Viola who is from here now lives in California and completed her catechumenate in CA but since her daughter will be baptized by me on 3 April, asked to have her own baptism in the same church.

Easter 2016 - Calling foward candidates for Baptism Easter 2016 - Blessing the Easter Water Easter 2016 - procession of candidates and sponsors to the font Easter 2016 - Baptismal Liturgy Easter 2016 - Renunciation and Profession of Faith by candidates

N. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Easter 2016 - Baptizing Adam (Philip) Easter 2016 - Baptizing Nelsilya (Frances Xavier Cabrini) Easter 2016 - Baptizing Siwen (Matilda) Easter 2016 - Baptizing Hiroka (Clare) Easter 2016 - Baptizing Viola (Victoria)

“Be clothed in Christ!” and “Receive the Light of Christ”

Easter 2016 - Our newly Baptized in their white clothing Easter 2016 - Receiving the Light of Christ and preparing for Confirmation

And then joined by Karen Ho (another of the brides-to-be, getting married on 9 April) we began the Rite of Confirmation with the laying on of hands, and then the anointing with the Sacred Chrism.

Easter 2016 - Laying on of hands (Karen) Easter 2016 - Laying on of hands (Adam) Easter 2016 - Laying on of hands (Hiroka (Clare) Easter 2016 - Confirming karen Easter 2016 - Confirming Nelsilya (Frances) Easter 2016 - Confirming Adam (Philip) Easter 2016 - Confirming Hiroka (Clare)

And that joyous moment in every priest’s life to finally present the newly baptized (and confirmed) to the community.

Easter 2016 - Presenting newly initiated to the community

Here is a photo taken inside at the offertory just to see the crowd.

Easter 2016 - View of the filled church

The rest of the Vigil Mass went well, they received their First Communion, and then it was finally time to sing the last Alleluias and go out into the dark evening! Bit not before the requisite photos of the newly baptized with me, and then with their sponsors and future spouses and family members!

Easter 2016 - Photo with newly baptized Easter 2016 Photo with newly Baptized and families

THE LORD IS RISEN, HE IS TRULY RISEN, ALLELUYA!!!!

EASTER MORNING

The morning Masses in the parish were a jumble of happy emotions and joy. Seeing the newly baptized mingling with the rest of the community, many from among our 280 newly baptized still wearing their baptismal garment, was wonderful. The English community Easter Mass was full to overflowing outside beyond the portico.

The theme was a continuation of the Lenten reflections, but with emphasis on the symbolism of Easter (and the Easter Egg!), more singing, a few of my Easter jokes, and a wonderful lively celebration of the Resurrection.

Easter 2016 - Our choir Easter Sunday congregation easter Sunday nave Easter Sunday preaching Easter Sunday and the egg Easter Sunday with the 4 Korean seminarians

Yes, that is my Easter selfie with the 4 Koreans who made every ceremony and took enough photos to fill a few albums.

But we were not finished.

As a nod to my years in Tanzania and Russia, we placed an “Easter Monday” Mass into the schedule for the blessing of the Easter Eggs and breads… and this was totally foreign here, but a good 140 people showed up for morning Mass, including some of the newly baptized, and we had a live celebration of Easter Monday – when in Tanzania the catechumens would return home from the central mission station, and in Russia where the faithful would bring empty bottles to church to receive newly blessed Paschal Water for the home.

Easter Monday 2 Easter Monday 1

 

HAPPY EASTER TO EVERYONE!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

LOST FROM LUNAR FESTIVITIES THROUGH LENT

Here it is the night of the 5th Sunday of Lent, and I am sitting here in my office, clearing up all the paperwork and notes from a long weekend, and planning now the holy Week rehearsals, meetings with the “elect” who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil, and also continuing my hectic schedule with RCIA classes, preparations for weddings, confessions, and working on piles of marriage nullity cases.

When I had my last entry it was the end of January, and preparations were going at a fever pitch for the upcoming Lunar (Chinese New Year). This would be my first experience of this major Asian holiday festival, and I was getting caught up with all the preparations and the fever of the last days.

NAC Guests

On January 30th, Maryknoll hosted 5 seminarians (3 priests in their last year and 2 deacons) from the Pontifical North American College in Rome at our residence in Stanley, and taking advantage of the presence of fairly-newly ordained priests, I “invited” them — literally the morning they arrived — to come straight from the airport to our parish to help in hearing the confessions of our parish school children’s CCD group. These young priests, although rightfully tired and exhausted as they were from the long flight and layover in Dubai, could not have been more helpful spending a little over an hour doing this act of mercy.

The kids were happy as they were in awe of young priests. At the end, the guys were noticeably  falling over and fighting to keep their eyes open,  so I got them into a cab and they went back to Stanley to sleep.

The next day, the 3 priests con-celebrated Mass with me and we were joined by one of the deacons too, and from that, after a quick change, I took them off for a lunch and then we went up to the Peak, and then to the Mo Man Temple and Soho, a ride on the Star Ferry across to Kowloon, and a short stop at a bar for bar-food and drinks, then seeing the lights at the harbor and their return via a stop at my place to get their bags, and back to Stanley.

Since one or two of them had been to Hong Kong before, they managed to get around on their own – visiting Macau for a day and sightseeing, although the weather was not on their side as this is ‘winter” and so days of cold and rain are the usual pattern.

I arranged for them a visit to our diocesan seminary in Aberdeen on 3 February and then they joined me for a quiet dinner in a French bistro here in Happy Valley (a thank you gift for all their help) and they again assisted us with our Blessing of Throats Mass on the Feast of St. Blaise, the first time in decades that this was done, with a nice gathering of many people (mostly intrigued by “what’s this Blessing?”).

I now know that if I ever get priest guests visiting, I can put them to work, so — to my priest-friends, welcome anytime!!!!

The Lunar New Year

The Lunar (Chinese) New Year is a festival that lasts 15 days (16 if you count the “eve”). I never knew this and I was hearing already many urban tales about the banquets and the custom of Lei Cee (the exchange of New Year’s envelopes…. with cash in them…), and other parts of this long and historic celebration that is so fixed in the Asian culture.

My “wing man” in the rectory is Father Francis LI Yu-ming, an 89-year-old priest from the China Mainland who has been living and working in Hong Kong for decades, and he took it upon himself to help me prepare.

cardinal-tongs-celebration-11

He has become a very good and dear friend in the priesthood, and a wonderful and patient guide for me on “all things Chinese.” He is in many senses my “wing man” — usually sitting next to me at innumerable banquets and meals to quietly whisper “Avoid that,” or “That is OK to eat,” or better, “That tastes awful so don’t let them put it in your plate!”He teaches me the polite customs and rituals of meals, politely serving those to your right and left before someone serves you (he and I sit next to each other to “control” what is placed in our bowls!!!), the custom of lightly tapping two fingers on the table as someone offers more tea, or more food (a way of expressing, I think, “thanks,” or “yes please”).

He also is great as my translator, and the one who gets me out of these sometimes interminable banquets.Since he and I are the “old men” of the rectory, we use each other as an excuse to leave long banquets and gatherings with, “Oh, I have to walk Father Francis back to the rectory now,”  as we laugh escaping yet another ponderous banquet or gathering…. and running home for his siesta, and me returning to my usual work. We always go together to any event that requires us using public transport or a car, and often at night, we are about the only two in the rectory for meals, and he loves Italian “noodles” (as he calls them… e.g. spaghetti), and he is also a great chef in his own way of Chinese dumplings which he loves to make when our cook is off.

As the start of New Year (8 February) got closer, noting we had already decorated the place pretty well. we were finally blessed with two or three days of warmer weather and sunshine, so Fr. Francis suggested (I think the better word is “badgered”) that I make the “must do” trip to Victoria Park here in Causeway Bay (next to Happy Valley) to see the New Year’s preparations.

Victoria in her Park

So – believing (wrongly??) that my “wing man” would always be watching out for my good,  off I went on the tram making the slow but sure trip to Victoria Park.

The weather was warm, the trip was enjoyable, but the crowds of shoppers on this Saturday, February 6th made the movements of the tram slow. I arrived at the park and was stunned by the amount of people there — thousands and thousands.

Booths were set up in 6 or 7 passage points going from east to west in the park, with alternating sections for moving (one section was west-to-east; the other was east-to-west). The problem was that with thousands of people (and not all of them obeying the ONE WAY signs), it was pure chaos, and one did not walk but one baby-stepped, inch by inch — and I did this for some 2 hours.

The major displays were flowers as these are a BIG gift item for the New Year – from water lily plants, to kumquat and miniature orange trees, to orchids and other flowers in every color and shade imaginable.

Victoria Park 2 Victoria park 3 Victoria Park 4 Victoria park 5 Victoria park 6

I made it home relatively unscathed and when I got to our apartment, I ran into my “wing man” who smiled and said, “So, how did you like it?” His mischievous grin gave him away — he KNEW I would be overwhelmed with the crowds and chaos, but felt “You have to experience it once!”

To make up for that, after our quiet dinner of spaghetti, he came to my room and told me to turn on the TV as there was a 5-part special (in English) on the customs of the foods and rituals of the Lunar New Year. It was fascinating as it covered various parts of vast China from the north, to the far west, and then to central and south China.

The New Year BEGINS

The eve of the Lunar New Year was a Sunday (7th February) and so we anticipated the celebrations with the special New Year’s Mass (yes, they have their own version of this, with special readings, prayers, and blessings). For the English community, it was the first time in many years that they joined in with the Chinese community in these prayers, and it pushed me to read up on many of the customs so that I could explain them for those who were as clueless as I had been. (Below are photos of our apartment decked out for the New Year with spring plants, the required live cherry tree blossoming and with Lei Cee envelopes as decorations, the potted kumquat and orange plants, and the facade of the church decorated for the day.

Apartment New Year 6 Apartment New Year 4 Apartment New Year 3

New Year 2

For that particular Sunday luncheon, though I generally do not eat with the others as I am always at Mass when they have their big Sunday lunch, our cook Fong Xe had prepared a special New Year’s lunch and she insisted that I had to have some (even though I was going to eat it at least 2 plus hours after the other priests).

She carefully placed the special meal all on one plate with a side of soup (we never have any other beverage with a meal except some form of Chinese broth or soup). I stared down and saw this:

New Year Eve dinner

The soup (in the bowl to the upper right) is a sort that I have learned to avoid… I am still trying to figure out what is in it, but whatever it is… I know I do not enjoy it. On the plate were overcooked jumbo scallops still attached to the shell, reconstituted dried and smoked oysters, some chicken wings (that were not yet quite cooked, a slab of steamed lotus root, a claw of crab, some tofu and sticky rice, and under it all…. the strangest thing I had ever seen (which… in the McCabe tradition going back to our childhood, after cautiously playing with it with my chopsticks to make sure whatever it was… it was dead, was carefully and tightly wrapped in my napkin for later disposal). The mystery item will be revealed later in this post.

So with our apartment and church all decked out with the festive plants and decorations, we had an enormous turnout of parishioners for our two New Year’s morning Masses. Large wicker baskets (4 in all) were prepared with the “parish Lei Cee” gifts, specially chosen for this year’s New Year in the Year of Mercy, so everyone received a small Jesus Mercy icon on a cross fitted to a magnet to decorate a fridge or use on a white board, and these had been meticulously placed into small red/gold envelopes by our volunteers (some 4,000 of these were prepared).

Since this was a special day, for the first time I (silently) con-celebrated at the Cantonese Mass, with Father Joseph Tan Leitao, S.V.D. presiding, and my wing man, Father Li on the side (recuperating from a bad accident where he dropped a heavy vase with one of the kumquat plants on his ankle).

New Year Day 1a

In the sacristy while preparing for the 2nd Mass, Father Joseph and I were chatting when a couple came in (both are volunteers in the parish and well-known to all the priests) with their daughter for her first New Year celebration. She was also at our parish party in January but now more formally dressed. (Parish party photo on left, and New Year on right).

lny-family-dinner-71 New Year Day1

At the end of each Mass, the priests, assisted by the altar servers, stood at the front of the sanctuary (and later on the steps of the church) distributing the New Year Lei Cee gifts and blessing the people.

new Year Day 3 new year Day 4' New Year distributing Lei Cee

But the surprise came later for me, when for the next 15 days, both after Mass, before Mass, around the parish, at banquets and dinners and even just on the street, people would come up and wish me “Kung Hai Fat Choi” and hand me a red (or gold) envelope.

Lei Cee envelopes

This is a highly regarded custom, and people walk around for the entire period with prepared envelopes (with various denominations of Hong Kong dollars in them) to hand out at any point. We priests learned to walk around with pockets filled with our parish gift so we could “exchange” them — my problem was never seeming to have enough pockets for the Lei Cee envelopes I was given.

This exchange of Lei Cee went on and on for the entire 15 days.

Because of this and the many family customs around the New Year, just as happens in Irish enclaves where the local bishops dispense from fast and abstinence for St. Patrick’s day,  or for the Italians on St. Joseph’s day, for Chinese New Year we are dispensed… so much so that Ash Wednesday was very understated. Yes we did distribute ashes in the early morning, but no other Masses were held as the holiday was in full swing.

Another custom is giving gifts of flowers as mentioned above and so each priest was given an elaborate dish filled with water lily bulbs that – over the 15 days – grew, and bloomed filling our offices with an intoxicating sweet (and pleasant) aroma. Of course, our cook, Fong Xe watched the plants carefully too for future “steamed water lily bulb” meals….

Water lilies a Water lilies

A MOST Historic and Ecclesial Event

As many of you know, I spent 7 years working and ministering to a Catholic community in Khabarovsk, in the Diocese of St. Joseph in Irkutsk in the Russian Federation.  In that period, one of the most difficult challenges had been our relations as Catholics to the Russian Orthodox Church. After a lot of difficulties, however, I was able to build up what I considered excellent relations with the Orthodox Archbishop Mark of Khabarovsk and many members of his clergy and faithful.

So on February 12th, when Pope Francis, traveling to Mexico, stopped in Havana Cuba for a meeting with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kyrill, I was personally thrilled seeing the beginning of an end to the thousand year’s of schism.

Historic meeting 1 Historic Meeting 2 Historic Meeting 3 Historic Meeting 4

The historic implications of this first face-to-face meeting of the heads of these two important ecclesial communities cannot be overestimated. The fact that they met, embraced, and exchanged a mutual statement and blessing goes a long way in opening a new chapter in ecumenism.

A special New Year’s festival

On the first weekend of the new Year’s festival (14 February), our pastor and parish council sponsored a great FAMILY DAY complete with special foods, games, and a big stage setting for family and group New Year’s photos, as well as — the greatest part — a professional troupe of Lion Dancers. This troupe is a mix of very young boys and girls and older taller teenagers (who are the hind legs of the lions as well as the musicians and leaders [the lion head is usually a short guy with very strong arms as he holds up and manipulates the lion head through very intricate dance steps).

The stage of the parish center was decorated in a special way for people to get a New Year photo, and many people took advantage of this. Here you see Father Joseph Tan organizing his Mandarin Choir, and then the big Cantonese Choir came on stage and called me up for a group photo together with Father Tan and Sister Bernadette Woo.

Stage set for New year photo Setting up New Year photo Sitting with parishioenrs for formal portraint

The Lion Dancers set up two stations, one at the top steps of the church where the two lions would greet the faithful as they came out from Mass and then accompanied by cymbals, drums and gongs, danced into the hall followed by all the parishioners where they put on a masterful show twice. I managed to get a photo before I vested for my Mass with the Master of the dance troupe.

Lion dancers at church steps Lion dancers greet people leaving church With head of lion dancers Lion Dancer troupe Lion dancers future Lion dancers greet people leaving church Lion Dancers in hall Lion Dancers preparing

Our parish youth, taking advantage of so many people present for Mass (and carrying the envelopes with Lei Cee) set up a small booth to raise money for their trip to World Youth Day in Poland later this summer.

Parish youth

It definitely was a memorable celebration. Many people stood on line for the formal portrait pictures, others enjoyed flavorful New Year snacks and treats, the kids (and adults0 had the noise and joy of the Lion Dances, and the property was covered with confetti and hundreds of people milling about wishing “Long Life, Good Health, and Happiness.”

St. Valentine’s Day

Although not as widely celebrated and commercialized as in the West, the First Sunday of Lent coincided with Valentine’s Day and as I was seeking a time and place to have my pre-marital seminar with couples at whose weddings I would preside, the majority of them were able to make a special luncheon at a nearby restaurant after our Sunday Mass and the Lion festival.

This gave me a time to meet these young women and men who have been preparing for months (years?) for their marriage. Two of them are in my catechumen class, others I will baptize at Easter (those to be baptized live one in Shanghai and the other in Toronto so they were not able to make it). I had already spent hours with each couple individually with all the paperwork that goes into a Hong Kong wedding (both civil and church).

So this was a great way to treat a lot of topics with all of them together and the brides especially came well-prepared, with their folders of plans and preparations. The guys were — the guys. They sat back, spoke of their jobs, sports and anything BUT the wedding. I had to laugh at this dynamic. The guys were thrilled with the food, the ladies hardly touched theirs. I also was quietly pleased at how both the men and women pitched in with the initial rituals of any shared meal — first rinsing out all of our cups, bowls and spoons in tea, which is then poured into a glass bowl, and the “rinsing tea” discarded, and then pouring out new fresh steeped tea into our cups after the rinsing ritual.The first few times I observed this at shared meals and banquets, I thought people were unhappy with the quality of the tea or something, but then was told that it has different meanings but the more mundane one is rinsing the bowl, spoon and cup with hot fresh tea should guarantee that any residue soap from the kitchen washers is definitely “washed away.”

This luncheon was a very nice and relaxing way to spend a day with these young people. The first couple in the group to marry will be this Thursday, March 17th, and then two couples on April 2nd, one couple on April 9th (which I will not be able to attend as I will be in NYC presiding at another wedding), and then a couple will wed as soon as I return on April 22nd (and the last couple are off in November but came along for the free food and ideas).

Couples I will marry this year

Weddings in our church are almost a cottage industry. The Hong Kong government decides which churches are eligible to host weddings (not all parishes can do this) and ours is the #1 or #2 choice by far, with a few hundred weddings each year. Perhaps it is our majestic entry decked out this way for each couple?

Wedding Bell ready

 

Resuming RCIA classes

My classes for catechumens had to be suspended for two weeks because of the new Year festivities, but finally in mid-February we got back on track with classes. I had a new curriculum, and our classes picked up a few new people. It is becoming apparent that I have one of the few all-English adult classes for catechumens and we continually get requests to take in new students, but my time is the issue. We have at least planned for anew group to start in early September. The current group has 4 being baptized this Easter; 5 entering into full communion with the catholic Church at Pentecost this year; 8 who will be baptized at Easter 2017; and 5 Catholics following the course as they had been “away” from the Church for a while.

my RCIA curriculum

The speech circuit

At the end of January, one of my parishioners approached me to ask if I would consider giving an address to a group of professional Catholic women. She had organized this group some 16 years ago when she was one of the leading civil servants of the former government, and had many contacts through the catholic schools network (she and many others in the group were alumnae of the Maryknoll Sisters schools which were considered the best here in Hong Kong).

When the invitation was extended, I was told the group was quite small and maybe a dozen would be at the luncheon where I would give an address. I accepted – more out of curiosity than anything else), and the date was arranged for Saturday the 20th of February, with the topic to be on “Mercy.”

On the day, I made my way after my Mass with the school children to Central and to the Landmark Building (the new one…) and was met by my hostess, Mrs. Rose Goodstadt, a local Hong Kong lady married to an Irishman, Leo, with whom I had had a lunch a few weeks previously at the historic and famous “Hong Kong Club.”

We took a circuitous route up the towers of the Landmark, changing elevators for security checks and walking up the last two flights of mahogany stairs to a spectacular “penthouse suite” overlooking the harbor. It was a sunny and warm day, which made it extra special.

To my surprise there were 26 women, not the original 12, and they told me word had spread on “who” was speaking (and it seems I have a reputation here on the island for my homilies??). To my happy surprise, one of my catechumens was in the group. The women were all professionals, mostly in banking (HSBC or UBS) law (barristers or solicitors) one or two in education and a few highly-placed civil servants, and one professor of medicine at the leading medical hospital in Hong Kong. What is striking is their evangelical fervor to live their faith in a complex world in Hong Kong, and to encourage many other women to maintain their faith despite so many obstacles. There are two or three in the group who are especially zealous in this outreach.

The luncheon was great, the conversation flowed, and I managed to get through my talk without incident. It was a nice afternoon, and since then I have been happy to run into these women all over Hong Kong (and at my Masses on Sundays). There are photos of the whole group taken by others, but this is one of the “lawyers’ in the group.

With some catholic Women's group members

The Lantern Festival

Finally the last day of the 15-day celebrations came with the Lantern Festival and with it, my last banquet. I was already suffering Lunar Banquet tummy and was dreading any more exotic foods.

The Lantern Festival is a Chinese form of Valentine’s Day and this year we were all guests of the Senior Citizen’s group of parishioners (this was after we had survived the banquet and Mah Jong luncheon/dinner of the Cantonese Opera Society group in our parish).

Having survived (barely) about 10 of these banquets, I decided to record each and every course of this last one… and was lucky to have a medical doctor at my right side for the meal (my “wing man” was separated from me and so the doctor sat next to me as he spoke English).

He is a pediatric physician and well-known among parishioners and a delightful dinner companion as he had no problem actually telling me what it was I was eating…. (see above).

Her are all the courses (hopefully in some order):: Two kinds of roasted pork cut into cubes for easy serving and eating with the chop sticks, and served with mustard and chili sauce and the ubiquitous pots of tea (Jasmine and another more earthy darker variety); stewed or steamed vegetables, a whole fish, a somewhat still bloody chopped up chicken, me holding the worst… the special New Year dish of Bok Choy, the ‘secret mystery ingredient” slimy mushrooms, carrots, a smoked reconstituted dried oyster, and some other slimy green thing on top, Sticky rice, long-life noodles, a New Year steamed cake, and steamed almond-milk and tapioca pudding.

Last Banquet1 Last Banquet3 Last banquet 2 Last Banquet5 Last Banquet6 Last Banquet4 Last Banquet7 Last Banquet8 Last Banquet10 Last Banket9

Now with the food and banquets over I finally knew what I had ingested for the past 15 days… and the mystery item mentioned way up in the beginning was…… fish bladder, which now is placed together in the stellar list of things “Father does NOT eat,” including fish heads, abalone (dreadful), smoked and reconstituted oysters, under-cooked parts of poultry (chicken and duck feet take 1st place), and many members of the plant and animal kingdoms that I had no idea could be cooked and eaten.

I survived as the photo below demonstrates (with all the empty bowls in front of me and my face looking somewhat drawn), followed by my first treatment of some foul-smelling medicine that cures stomach issues (the smell could kill anything in 20 or 30 meters). Whatever is in these “Trumpet” pills (as they are called because of the trumpet on the side) they work.

Surviving Last Banquet Trumpet medicine

Some Guests in Town

The parents of Msgr. K Bart Smith, pastor at the parish in Silver Spring, MD where I lived during my Catholic University years, came to Hong Kong for 2 days during a round-the-world cruise. Although finding the dock where their ship pulled in (the old airport) and whisking them back to Hong Kong island took time, it was enjoyable to have them here for two days, taking them on all the must-see sights of the Star Ferry, the peak (where the sun was out for the first time ever for me), Soho, the Mid-Levels moving stairway, many rides on the tram going east and west, walks through downtown, seeing the light show from Kowloon, walking the promenade and on the last day visiting some of the famous buildings they had seen from across the harbor. here are a few snapshots. Interestingly, what is called “Status Square” in the city center, and where statues of the former British monarchs stood, has only one statue left… that of the founder of HSBC which headquarters face the square now.

The peak 1 The Peak 3 Victoria Harbor lights HSBC founder in Statue Square HSBC from Statue Square HSBC headquarters inside

This last photo is the amazing interior of the HSBC building, the exterior of which is above right.

Finding time

Just to give you a peek into my schedule, here are photos of my calendar for February and March.

Calendar February calendar March

This office calendar is matched by two portable ones and there are days when I wonder how I will get through the day and make all the appointments, but I am learning more and more to balance my two principle jobs (parochial vicar at St. Margaret’s and Judge in the diocesan tribunal) and keeping just ahead of all the deadlines.

I sometimes feel as if I am still back at CUA — I had rejoiced at graduation thinking all the deadlines of term papers and exams were behind me, only to find deadlines in writing sentences, deadlines in writing articles, preparing classes, preparing people for sacraments, interviewing people for nullity cases, and getting back and forth between my two offices (one at the parish and the other at the chancery in Mid Levels on Caine Road).

Here is the judge at work in his parish office (note the gavel near the cross…)

The priest judge in his office

LENT come and nearly gone….

The celebration today of the 5th Sunday of Lent brought home how busy (and happy) I have been for these past 5 or 6 weeks. I am more comfortable with my works and ministries, but still wish I had the time to study some Cantonese, but that will come.

I manage to keep up with the heavy and cluttered series of meetings, dinners, conferences, Masses, and office appointments that fill my days and nights. Inasmuch as this is a busy metropolis, we work until all hours of the night as that is when most people can see us.

I was approached to start yet another RCIA – this time for high school-aged people and I have two already and will expand this after Easter. in May we have our CCD children making First Communion and others receiving Confirmation (here the priests are the ministers of Confirmation both for the Easter Vigil and for “special groups,” which is what my English groups appears to be).

I cannot believe that 5 months have gone by since I arrived here. I feel “at home” and content with the challenges the ministry brings.

Just this past week my mentor, former superior (1991-2000) in the Vatican, and good friend who taught me so much about my vocation as a missionary, marked his 92nd birthday. I watched my clock and knew the time difference and when I knew it was about 11:45 a.m. in Rome, knowing as well as I do the Cardinal Jozef Tomko’s daily schedule, I called his apartment. The sister who is his housekeeper recognized my voice immediately and called the cardinal who was just returning from a morning Lenten conference with Pope Francis.

For 15 minutes we chatted as friends – sharing memories of trips in the past, people we knew, and him questioning me of my work and me asking about his. It is humbling when this great man, a close confident to both St. John Paul II and Benedict XVI, praised me for returning to the missions — as I reminded him that I served him when he was my current age, and we traveled the world visiting missions. He was one of the inspirations for my return now.

So to Cardinal Jozef Tomko, friend, mentor, confident and brother, I close my BLOG now wishing him again HAPPY BIRTHDAY for his 92 years, and God’s blessings on him.

Card Tomko 1

Pope Francis rides in a bus with cardinals and bishops at the and of their weeklong Lenten retreat in Ariccia, Italy, March 14. At the end of the retreat, Pope Francis said he and his closest collaborators at the Vatican "want to follow Jesus more closely, without losing hope in his promises and without losing a sense of humor." (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Reuters) (March 14, 2014) See POPE-RETREAT March 14, 2014.

Pope Francis rides in a bus with cardinals and bishops at the and of their weeklong Lenten retreat in Ariccia, Italy, March 14. At the end of the retreat, Pope Francis said he and his closest collaborators at the Vatican “want to follow Jesus more closely, without losing hope in his promises and without losing a sense of humor.” (CNS photo/L’Osservatore Romano via Reuters) (March 14, 2014) See POPE-RETREAT March 14, 2014.

Card Tomko w Vlad 2011 This last photo is of 2011 when I baptized my godson, Dr. Evgeny Gulevskiy’s son, Vladislav in Rome. The Cardinal graciously invited Zhenya and his wife Alena and Vlad to his apartment for tea and to bless Vlad (who is now 5 and growing).

So… I am now somewhat caught up with the BLOG and apologize for the silence, but hope the explanation of what has been unfolding here in “Fragrant Harbor” will help understand.

I leave with this photo of our church at night. Throughout Lent we are spending many many hours at night in confession for this Year of Mercy, and people come every Friday for hours to stand on line for confession. It is humbling to – in the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel – say to someone, “neither do I condemn you, but go and sin no more.”

The light is on

Of course, in my homily as I spoke of the woman caught in “adultery” a 9-year old in the front row who is rather inquisitive asked… a BIT too loud, “Mommy, what’s adultery?” which broke up everyone listening to me wondering, “Ok Father… what do you say?” I said — “Good question, Xavier,” (his name), laughing and made a side comment about — “I leave the answer to the parents… Good Luck with that!”

But I had also used the song “By My Side” from Godspell as a point for meditation, and hopefully the lyrics and haunting melody can inspire them all to think of my them, “let the past be in the past, and let the future be the future.” And as the woman’s past was now forgiven, she looked forward to “skipping the road” with Christ as a disciple… which is the call we all have, whether the road is smooth, or more often a bit uncomfortable (“putting a pebble in my shoe”). But knowing with Christ “by my side,” all things are possible.