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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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).
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).
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.
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.
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….
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This last photo is the amazing interior of the HSBC building, the exterior of which is above right.
Just to give you a peek into my schedule, here are photos of my calendar for February and 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…)
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.
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.”
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.