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Modern lesson from ancient times

Last weekend, the 1,400th anniversary of the death of St. Columban was celebrated at St. Joseph’s in Central. Columban was Irish and a monk. He set off for Europe with the confidence that he could meaningfully engage with the cultures of a foreign people and use his learning to contribute to their lives.

Columban was highly conscious of his own identity, leaving the earliest surviving literary record of Irish self-description.

Centuries later, foreign missionaries came to Hong Kong in the immediate post-World War II period. They too were conscious of their foreign identities, but they moved to the hillsides of the New Territories, where refugees pouring in from China were clinging desperately to life.

They set up soup kitchens and clinics. In time, housing projects got underway and with them came education, both in the form of schools and skills training. Parishes and community centres emerged, and eventually a settled people, that helped make Hong Kong what it is today, was born.

Those missionaries too came to Hong Kong with a confidence they could meaningfully engage with the culture and contribute to the lives of its people.

The British administration played its role as well, at one point even redefining the status of the people to allow the subvention of government money for their support and long term development.

The government and the missionaries understood that the new-comers needed far more than a hug upon arrival. The far-more was provided and today the territory revels in the result.

This happened in days before refugees were subjected to abstract political conceptualisations dividing them into the spurious categories of economic and genuine. They were simply people in need and the struggling city was turned upside down to accommodate them.

Arguably, the two most important services were medical care and education, as without health there is no future and without education there is no hope.

Today, the world seems to be at a loss in the face of the sudden exodus of people from the violence of the Islamic State in the Middle East, as well as from the failed states of Africa and Asia. There is panic over the volume, although they represent less than 0.1 per cent of Europe’s population.

The Italian foreign minister, Paolo Gentiloni, has warned that the migrant crisis could pose a major threat to the soul of Europe, which begs the question, is the crisis one of capacity, culture or politics.

The world is well aware that it is the failed state that puts people on the move, as its inability to provide adequate safety, health services and education, or put food on the table and provide security breeds desperation.

But a new type of failed state seems to be emerging—one that is incapable of welcoming people searching for these basic necessities of life.

Security requires more than privatisation of territory and, in today’s pluralistic world, any country that is so insecure in its own cultural, religious and historical identity that it lacks the confidence to meaningfully engage with foreign elements in its midst seems doomed to fail.

Fourteen hundred years ago, an ageing Irish monk showed not only the possibility, but saved a fractured civilisation from devouring itself.

Truly a saint for our times. JiM