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.
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).
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!).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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!”
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.
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.
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.
N. I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
“Be clothed in Christ!” and “Receive the Light of Christ”
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.
And that joyous moment in every priest’s life to finally present the newly baptized (and confirmed) to the community.
Here is a photo taken inside at the offertory just to see the crowd.
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!
THE LORD IS RISEN, HE IS TRULY RISEN, ALLELUYA!!!!
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.
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.
HAPPY EASTER TO EVERYONE!!