“Are you excited to go to Hong Kong?”
“I don’t know. I sort of have an impression that it is just a port town, dirty, with lots of shady characters, filled everywhere with vice, where you can pretty much do anything you want, and get anything you want.”
“Oh it’s all that an more!”_________________________
Hong Kong! Wow! God did make green things! I had forgotten. Finally leaving winter climates feels soooooooo good, but what a shock, to wake up in a tropical region, lush with greenery, and fresh with warmth. I’m a little slow getting started today, because I feel a cold coming on, and want to fight it off as best I can.
I wasn’t able to do any research about Mass times or places before coming to Hong Kong. For some reason, all the websites I searched in China came up as an error page. I was actually surprised when I got to Hong Kong and had no problem loading the pages. Apparently someone in China has decided that the Archdiocese of Hong Kong a threat to national security and so websites were all blocked.
Anyway, when I finally got to the Archdiocesan website, I was shocked! Ash Wednesday is canceled! What! You can’t do that to me! I’m Catholic! I need my ashes or I don’t know who I am!
What has really happened is that Ash Wednesday, this year, falls on the fourth day of Chinese New Year, which is part of the normal cultural celebration for this part of Asia. The local bishop has therefore exempted Catholics from beginning Lent until next week Wednesday, when ashes will be distributed.
“He can do that?” You are probably thinking. Yes he can, he’s the bishop.
Not that a bishop can do whatever they want, but the Church is actually notorious for being flexible. There are reasons for every rule and custom to be adapted and/or changed if the situation is appropriate (the U.S. bishops exempt the Irish from abstaining from meet on Friday if St. Patrick’s day lands on a Friday). In the case of Asian cultures that celebrate Chinese New Year, the local custom of celebrating the lunar New Year is so important, that calling a day of fasting seems inappropriate, so the bishop has the responsibility of deciding what to do. Here, he chose to suspend Ash Wednesday till next week. “I am hoping Vietnam has done the same so that I can still get my ashes.” I thought
So I go out for the day, trying to find the cathedral. Around the U.S. Consulate, I looked up and thought “Huh! That looks like a Church.” So I went to check it out, only to end up at the beginning of a Mass… where they had ashes! Now I’m really confused. I thought the bishop made a rule to break the rule and now we are breaking his rule on top of that? Which rule are we really breaking? And… huh?
The parish is located in the middle of what was once British occupied China, a city made rich by foreign investors and entrepreneurial Chinese businessmen. A British colony for the last few centuries, St. Joseph’s parish actually began as a ministry to serve the Irish who were serving in the British Army here in Hong Kong. The parish is still primarily English speaking because it has an enormous population of young Filipina women who serve as maids and nannies for a great number of the residents of Hong Kong. Filipina flock to these jobs because of the good pay they receive. The residents prefer someone who can speak English so they can help their children learn English. They believe this will give their children an edge in the marketplace in their future. Filipina women, over Chinese women who don’t always speak English, are well equipped for this kind of a job.
Since most of the Filipina women are Catholic, they also seek to celebrate their faith, which is now the primary ministry at St. Joseph’s parish in Hong Kong. Since lunar new year is important to the Chinese, but not as important as Lent to the Filipinas, the parish had a pastoral reason to break the rule of the Archdiocese, which had decided to break the rule of the Universal Church. I don’t know if that put is in unity or disunity, but whatever, I got my ashes. (I really see why Protestants roll their eyes at Catholics for all the confusing rules.)
I also have to say… this was the happiest Ash Wednesday service I have ever been to in my entire life. The Filipinas were dancing and clapping and so happy to have a day of fasting and penance. What!? I know it doesn’t make sense. But that is their culture.
I spoke about this with the pastor. First of all, I have to say that the real nature of pilgrimage comes out in these encounters I have with wise men and women along the journey. This Maryknoll missionary has so much insight into people and culture that it would be worth making a pilgrimage just to see him.
St. Joseph parish has 12 Masses every Sunday, and he is present at every one. He laughed and told me that he couldn’t handle 3 Masses in the States. Mass in the States is too boring. But here, it is such a celebration, that it is easy to spend all day at prayer, even for someone in his seventies.
He has seen a lot of cultures, and has come to realize that they are all different, which is what makes them the same. This reality just doesn’t fit into a western way of thinking because it can’t be controlled. He reminded me that if we want to discover the unity we experience as brothers and sisters in the Faith, we have to get away from conceptualizing about it. We simply have to be with the people. It’s the only way. Actually it was the only way for God too. Garden’s didn’t work. Laws didn’t work. Prophets didn’t work. The only way God could really commune with human beings was to be with us as a human being. It is part of the reason pilgrimage is important.
The pastor also taught me something about the Chinese. Words are signs in the language. That’s obvious enough. But there is no explanation for the signs, just the experience that goes with the sign. For example, the Chinese word for “truth” literally translates as “has shadow.” To be real, means that it affects the world they can see. There is no metaphysics in Chinese philosophy. There are no explanations. There are only signs and stories, and the relationships we experience because of them. When you see the world this way, explanations are meaningless.
Jesus knew this. The Bible is really made up of stories, not explanations. Western cultures have done our best to develop systematic explanations to these stories, but those systems aren’t going to make sense here in Hong Kong. These Filipina women are happy because Jesus loves them, and they have the opportunity to come together, away from their daily work, and love Jesus in return, together as a community. Don’t try to explain away the fact that today is Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent and now everyone has to act in a different way. The pastor reminded me, “What you’ll learn about these people is that no matter how hard you try, you can’t buy them. You can’t intellectualize your way past them. You have to speak to the heart. It is just the way they are.”
And they are happy. No matter how “poor” they are.
They are happier than most Americans I know.
So where do the rules fit in?