CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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Bishop writes to people in prison

HONG KONG (SE): “The majority of people in Hong Kong prisons eventually are offered the grace of walking through the holy door as an experience of joy after a long sorrow,” Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing told a gathering of people who work in the prison ministry held at the cathedral on August 28.

The auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong added that before they get the chance to walk through the big gate to freedom, they must accept the consequences of their crimes.

However, he stressed that society shares as much responsibility for their actions as they themselves do if all it does is focus the blame on the individual, while ignoring the root cause of the injustice and the problems that breed criminal environments.

The bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, has written a letter of encouragement to Catholics in Hong Kong prisons, 600 copies of which will be posted by members of the Prison Ministry, which is under the care of a deacon, Reverend Edwin Ng Wing-hung, and the St. Paul’s Correspondence Association in September.

Eight thousand copies of another letter encouraging prisoners to accept the mercy of God will be distributed by the Correctional Services Department to all those behind bars in the city.

A letter from Pope Francis addressed to prisoners will be delivered with them.

A lively part of the programme was provided by Rose Sulartin and the Love of Jesus Catholic Prayer Group Prison Ministry performing the theme song for their work. 

The group puts on a popular concert each year in a prison in Hong Kong over the Lunar New Year holiday period.

One specialised part of the prison ministry in the city is to people who do not speak Cantonese and Father Pat Colgan spoke of the many different challenges that this presents.

“They feel physical and cultural loneliness here,” he said. “There are cultural misunderstandings among them, as well as with the prison guards, so they often take out their frustrations on each other, because they have nowhere else to bring them.”

The Columban missionary said that a number of Dominicans and Columbans celebrate Mass regularly in both English and Spanish in the prisons, along with the Maryknoll and the Scheut Mission Societies, as well as two Oblates, Father John Wotherspoon and Father Rudolfo Jacobe.

Father Dominic Chan Chi-ming and Father Lawrence Lee Len are also regulars, while Cardinal Tong and Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun celebrate at Christmas and on other occasions.

In addition, Father James Areechira, whose reflections on his prison visits are published in the Sunday Examiner occasionally, and Father Franco Mella spend significant time chatting with prisoners, as well as advocating for their rights with consulates and local government.

A band of Filipino migrant workers from the Legionaries of Mary and other groups are also regulars at the prisons on Sundays, bringing a prayer and often some simple gifts that bring a smile to the faces of those who do not have any friends or family in the city.

Daniel Cheung Yun-on, from the Hong Kong Lay Prison Evangelical Organisation, told the gathering that there are not many opportunities for prison visitation groups to share their experiences together, so he hopes the gathering can be a starting point in building up an effective network.

Cheung Man-tat, who has just been released from a stretch behind bars, said that if it was not for the strength of his faith that he built up in jail, he thinks it would be extremely difficult to face life on the outside.

In thanking the visitation teams, he said that what they bring into the prison is a bit of love, which is vital, especially “at a time when we do not love ourselves and do not know how our lives can be of use, the volunteers really helped us to change.”

He said that one of his ambitions is to set up a group in the future to help former prisoners to rebuild their confidence.

However, Father Colgan believes that the diocese can help by reaching back to the Churches and non-government organisations in their countries of origin and help them to raise awareness of the situation and the need to provide support for their families.

He said that the prison ministry is not just about spiritual comfort, as he has found that drug cartels play on the dire poverty of many of the foreign prisoners convicted of trafficking in Hong Kong and trick them into acting as mules.

However, despite the good job that is already being done, Father Colgan said that the local Church in Hong Kong is blessed with a great wealth of linguistic, personal and sacramental talent that can contribute to a campaign to stop what is clearly a globalised problem of drug mules.

He pointed to Father Wotherspoon, who is naming individuals and groups in Africa and South America that trick people into carrying drugs on his website He says that several drug mules from Tanzania alone are being picked up each week at Chek Lap Kok Airport.

Father Wotherspoon is working with groups in Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda to spread the word that you will be picked up and get a long prison sentence if you try to enter Hong Kong with drugs and he says that so far the campaign is working.

But he warns, “The drug lords are keeping up their campaign and so must we keep up our campaign to oppose them. The drug lords are the new slave traders, catching or fooling naïve and desperate people to become drug mules.”

Although the rules of the Correctional Services Department governing chaplains do not allow them to talk to the media, Father Wotherspoon was given special permission to speak with the South China Morning Post on 23 March 2014.

He told the Hong Kong daily paper, “The drug mules were being misinformed and tricked. They were being told it is easy to get into Hong Kong, and if you do get caught it is only two or three years in prison.”

The Australian Oblate added, “So I said to them, for heaven’s sake, tell your family, friends, Churches, politicians and media—tell them to stop coming to Hong Kong.”

Father Colgan believes that a greater ecumenical cooperation with groups like the Kun Sun Association, which has excellent prison chaplains in the persons of Pastor Tobias Brandner and Esther Tung, could bring a further richness to the work.

He also paid tribute to Bruce Aitken, who provides two hours of radio every Sunday night, which directly targets non-Chinese-speaking people in prison.

His Hour of Love from 9.00 to 11.00pm on Metro Radio 1044 AM provides a time of prayer, chat and music, combined with interviews and has a wide listening audience among people in prisons.

It has proved to be a highly effective ministry and one which is deeply appreciated by many a lonely soul in a prison cell in a foreign country.

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