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Mercy and forgiveness

For nearly the whole of 2016, the Catholic Church throughout the world celebrated the Jubilee of Mercy instituted by Pope Francis in 2015 to promote the spirit of universal pardon in the world and remission of sins among the faithful.

Every diocese of the Catholic Church organised its series of celebrations and activities for the entire year under the theme of mercy. The main doors of diocesan churches, traditionally kept closed except on special days, were opened daily inviting all to enter.

Our bishop in Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, designated the cathedral on Caine Road and six other local churches as sites for special pilgrimage by the Catholic faithful during the Jubilee Year.

I was familiar with several of these seven churches, but my wife, Selina, and I decided to revisit all of them during the year.

Three of these chosen churches lie in more remote areas and are excellent destinations for an outing. They are the Chapel of Holy Spirit Seminary in Aberdeen, St. Joseph’s Chapel at Yim Tin Tsai Village in Sai Kung, and the Chapel of Our Lady of Joy Abbey at Tai Sui Hang on Lantau Island.

Selina and I visited each of them twice during 2016. Without fail every such visit inspired me to reflect on myself and my relationship with the people of Hong Kong, whom Jesus Christ has named generically as neighbours and whom I had served for 45 years, particularly on how mercifully we have treated each other.

The Holy Spirit Seminary nests in a wooded hillock of Aberdeen. In beautiful Chinese style architecture constructed shortly after World War II, it provides a wide range of religious courses and prepares a handful of young men for priesthood. Its buildings are elegant and the grounds pristine and green.

St. Joseph’s Chapel in Yim Tin Tsai was completed in 1890, has been declared a Grade Two historic building and is a recipient of the UNESCO award for heritage conservation.

The Austrian priest who built it, Father Josef Freinademetz, is a canonised saint of the Catholic Church, a rare honour this modest chapel is proudly associated with.

The Chapel of Our Lady of Joy Abbey belongs to the Trappist Haven Monastery, the home of Cistercian monks who produce the famous Trappist milk in Hong Kong. All three chapels are rich in history with their unique features.

Since I stepped down from public office in 2012, Selina and I have tried to visit as many Catholic churches as possible when we travel out of Hong Kong. Over the past four and half years, we have called on over 100 of them.

In the major cities of western and central Europe, Catholic churches are omnipresent, particularly in Rome, Paris, Lisbon or even Barcelona.

In Rome you can find a church in almost any large street! Each of them houses artistic treasures of a large variety. There are murals, sculptures, paintings where you can easily spend hours if not days in appreciation and admiration of a single church.

More remarkable is how well these church buildings have been preserved, some of them over 1,000 years’ old. Many are huge iconic Gothic, Romanesque or Baroque architectural masterpieces which have stood the test of time; they have witnessed countless political upheavals.

Most of them are granite structures that wear well against fire and the elements. Despite wars and natural disasters, many have survived for centuries and can often tell us more than many other media about the history of the place where they were founded.

They represent my favourite subject for photos and reflection.

In mainland China, Catholic churches are well preserved in major cities. The four large churches in Beijing, the cathedrals in Nanjing, Tianjin, Jilin, Chengdu, Canton and Shanghai are impressive huge buildings, some going back to the Ming Dynasty. They are worthy of a visit, even if you are not a Catholic or Christian.

Their interior is unfortunately sparse compared with their western counterparts, because of civil wars and the Cultural Revolution when churches were ransacked.

Most pews and altars in them are new and the original stained glass windows in most of them are long gone and have been replaced by modern, tinted or plain versions. But the special aura of spirituality in these ancient buildings remains alive and particularly endearing to me.

The destruction of old Chinese temples is, in my view, most regrettable in China. Their mostly wooden structures could not withstand the arson, demolition and pilfering by senseless rioters, particularly during the Boxer Revolution and the Cultural Revolution.

Most of the Buddhist and Tao temples open to worshippers today have been built or rebuilt over the past 40 years.

It warms my heart that Hong Kong people attach great importance to the conservation of old buildings. They remind us of our past and the lessons that we can learn from the historic events they have witnessed in our short, but colourful history of 100 odd years.

Each one has a story to tell. They represent durability, tolerance and respect for our ancestors who worked together to build this wonderful city of ours.

 Perhaps they may also inspire us to view matters and people with a much wider and more historic perspective, be more tolerant and accommodating of each other, or even more inclusive, forgiving and merciful in dealing with ourselves and our neighbours, as Pope Francis has urged his faithful to do during the Jubilee Year.


Donald Tsang Yam-kuen
January 2017