CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 23 February 2019

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The prayerful heart of a postmodern city

I feel that it is important returning to this place to reflect in these times of violence and wars and find a relief of serenity and confidence

Lamma is a small, pedestrian island, a half-hour ferry ride from the Central district of our immense and postmodern metropolis. Its inhabitants are scattered around a few tiny villages, or in isolated residences.

There is a lively expatriate community, which includes artists, freelance journalists and writers. They are people who chose to stay away from the everyday hustle and bustle of the big city.

Some of them commute on work days; but among them are those who choose to live there because they cannot afford the high rents of Hong Kong and Kowloon.

The island reserves some surprises even for the casual visitor. Once off the ferry in Yung Shue Wan, you walk the narrow road through the centre of the village among an array of seafood restaurants.

Then if you turn left and walk a little path through the thick vegetation into the inland hills, there is an area dotted with tombs built according to the traditional fengshui doctrine.

After about 20 minutes, you reach a small monastery hidden in the midst of a cluster of tropical trees. For 16 years now, a group of nuns has lived there in prayer, silence and isolation, broken only by some infrequent visits from outsiders.

They are from The Philippines and belong to the order founded by Clare and Francis in Assisi in 1212. The monastery is evocatively named after the Porziuncola, the beautiful and tiny chapel in Santa Maria of the Angels in Italy where Francis and Clare started their evangelical life.

It is indeed an appropriate name for this monastery, so small that it cannot even accommodate the nuns in individual cells.

Although little known, for the Hong Kong Catholic community this is quite a significant place. A place and a story worth narrating. A Franciscan oasis, wrapped in silence.

The big city, with its spectacular postmodern buildings, although geographically close, seems far away from this isolated and quiet respite.

Until a couple of years ago, Father Francis Elsinger lived next door. After working in a factory for some time, the American priest retired there as an eremite, becoming a reference point for people attracted to contemplation and silence.

As a good monk, Father Elsinger alternated his time between prayer and manual work in a vegetable garden he cultivated amid the forest of tropical growth.

The arrival of the Poor Clare Sisters on 20 September 2000, marked an important development for this place of prayer.

Together with Father Elsinger and a group of volunteers, they initiated the practice of round the clock adoration of the blessed sacrament.

A couple of years ago Father Elsinger retired, leaving the sisters without a resident priest.

However, they continue their service to prayer and some priests from the island of Hong Kong cover the Sunday Mass, in addition to the occasional celebration on weekdays.

My friendship with the sisters began in 2000, when Sister Sonia Perdigon and I attended Cantonese classes at the University of Hong Kong together.

The young Filipino sister was already fluent in Putonghua, as she came from a Poor Clare monastery in Taiwan.

She wanted to learn the local language, to pray and communicate with the faithful in the local area.

As reported by the Sunday Examiner back in 2010, Sister Perdigon had explained that the monastic community aims at bringing the Franciscan and contemplative charism to Hong Kong; offering to young Chinese women (from both Hong Kong and China), the opportunity to experience the contemplative life.

Over the years, after various temporary presences, two Chinese women, both from mainland China, joined the monastery of the Holy Sacrament on the island of Palawan in The Philippines.

With Hong Kong, which is led by its founder, Mother Mary Anne Sevilla (, they make two branches of the same community.

The charism of Francis of Assisi has had a huge impact on the evangelisation of China. In 1294, the Italian Friar Giovanni da Montecorvino reached the ancient capital Kambaliq (Beijing) and became the first Catholic bishop in China.

In 1633, just 20 years after the death of Matteo Ricci—the scientist and humanist missionary who founded the modern mission in China—the Franciscans, along with the Dominicans, began their presence in the Middle Kingdom.

They preached to common people and introduced popular devotions. They lived a life of sacrifice and poverty, and were especially concerned for the poor.

Since then, the Franciscan families, both male and female, have been present in Greater China: on the mainland, in Taiwan and Macau, as well as Hong Kong.

In Hong Kong, the contemplative life is also present thanks to the Carmelite nuns in Stanley and the community of Trappist monks at the Abbey of Our Lady of Joy on the island of Lantau.

The Trappist monks have inherited, in a highly important sense, the legacy of the Trappist monastery of Our Lady of Consolation in Yangjiaping in northern China.

In 1947 the monastery was destroyed with unprecedented violence by the Communist persecution and 33 monks were killed during the subsequent horrific Death March.

But in today’s Hong Kong, I notice that the Poor Clare Sisters have become a reference point for many Filipinos working in the metropolis.

There are about 189,500 Filipino women (as well as some men) employed as domestic workers in Hong Kong.

They suffer the melancholy and frustration of being away from their families and dear ones.

To make things worse, some of them are victims of exploitation and abuse. They seek emotional and spiritual support in the friendship of the Poor Clares.

When in town, every week I go to the monastery on Lamma, spending the night in their little guest room.

I especially invite the sisters and others who may be present to pray for peace in the world. I feel that returning to this place to reflect is important in these times of violence and wars, and I find relief and serenity that inspires a confidence within the silent, natural surrounds.

Celebrating with the sisters and their friends in late evening or early morning gives a sense of hope in humanity.

The Poor Clare is a community, both missionary and contemplative at the same time. Our spiritual educator at the seminary of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, Father Leopoldo Pastori, used to say that every true missionary is a contemplative, at least in his or her heart.

The Lamma Sisters, inversely, know that every true contemplative is also a missionary.

The sisters celebrate the novena of St. Clare with great devotion, beginning with nine days of preparation leading to the feast of the founder on August 11.

However, August is extremely hot in Hong Kong and it is not easy for people to walk all the way to reach the monastery.

So they celebrate with particular devotion and solemnity the day that marks the encounter between Clare and Francis at the Porziuncola and the beginning of the second Franciscan order—the Order of the Poor Clares.

The actual day of the festivity is March 18, but this year the sisters are anticipating by having the celebration on Sunday, March 12.

Masses are being celebrated in both English and Cantonese, and friends from all over Hong Kong will join the contemplative community on that day.



                      • Gianni Criveller