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Heart in China, home in Hong Kong

A Paris-born boy, fourth in a family of five, dreamed of becoming a priest ever since his first Holy Communion. He was moved by the stories of the priests working in Communist China. Hearing the accounts of the pains and struggles of persecuted Christians in China keeping their faith alive and receiving the Eucharist, he began to dream of going there as a missionary.  
 
Today, Father Bruno Lepeu has been a priest for 25 years and feels content that throughout his priestly life, his heart has been in mainland China and Hong Kong is home! 
 
Father Lepeu celebrates his Sacerdotal Silver Jubilee on June 24 at St. Thomas the Apostle Church, Tsing Yi. We had the pleasure of hosting him at the Sunday Examiner a few weeks ago when he shared his dreams, hopes and life with us. 
 
Early years
He grew up in Paris, but in spite of being a city-boy he developed interests in agriculture and chose this subject for his university studies. However, he never ever gave up his passion for the priesthood and for China. While doing his university studies, he enrolled as a seminarian in the diocese, making himself a sort of “undercover seminarian”! 
 
China remained a dream, but France was a concrete situation where he could be a diocesan priest. The option for China remained undecided until he attended a discernment retreat which brought a clearer understanding about going to China as a diocesan priest. Hence he decided to join the Society of Foreign Missions of Paris (Missions Étrangères de Paris - MEP). 
 
Paris Foreign Mission Society 
However, his MEP superiors advised him not to join if his only purpose was to go to China. Rather, he had to be willing to go anywhere the society would send him. Thus, Father Lepeu realised that the choice would not be his, but it would be that of the community. This was around the time that the MEP were opening an agricultural college in Cambodia and, given his university studies in agriculture, he was almost certain to be assigned there. It was only after his ordination to diaconate, that he came to know about his appointment to China. Although this was his initial desire, it came as a surprise. 
 
Describing the mission of his congregation, Father Lepeu feels that, “Our mission is focused on the principles of ad extra (out of our country), ad gentes (for the people of other faiths) and ad vitam (for life) and recently, we also added the principle of Cum Ecclesia (with the local Church). We work within the settings of a diocese and really want to be companions with the local Church.”
 
He joked: “We call ourselves ‘diocesan priests for export’—not sure if we are of export quality, though!”
 
He pointed out that, “We don’t involve (ourselves) in institutions, rather (we) work together with the local bishop, which we have been doing in mainland China, especially in our former diocese there.” 
 
Mission in Hong Kong 
“I started learning Cantonese at the age of 22 as a seminarian in Hong Kong in 1988,” Father Lepeu recalled, saying that those two years proved critical for him, because he was part of two important events in the history of the territory. 
 
The first was The Tiananmen Massacre on 4 June 1989. It was a turning point for Hong Kong and it was critical to witness its impact on the lives of the people in city. 
 
“Those students in Tiananmen Square were of my age and it affected me a lot,” Father Lepeu remembers. “I saw people crying, reading the newspaper on the MTR and on the streets. More than that, it made me feel very much part of Hong Kong.” 
 
He said that during those few months, the heart of Hong Kong changed. Hong Kong people began to be concerned about the lives of people in China.  
 
The second instance was the Vietnamese at the Whitehead Detention Camp at Ma On Shan.  “This gave me an opportunity to experience the deep-rooted injustice done to the refugees,” he said. He began visiting the camp and playing with the children. 
 
These two cases gave him a deeper awareness of issue of social justice which “till then were only learned from books, but now was incarnate.”
 
After two years serving at the Star of the Sea parish in Chai Wan, and teaching French at the Alliance Française, he returned to France for his four years of theology studies. 
 
Accompanying the youth and clergy in China 
Father Lepeu returned to Hong Kong in 1994 following his ordination. World Youth Day 1997 was coming up in Paris, France, and John Baptist Cardinal Wu Cheng-chung, the then bishop of Hong Kong, appointed him, together with Father Joseph Yim Tak-lung to the organising committee of the Hong Kong Delegation.  That was his entry into the youth ministry. 
 
After serving in St. Teresa’s Church, where he was also involved in the youth ministry, he went to the Philippines to do a specialisation in youth ministry. Then he went to China to study Putonghua. 
 
From that time on, he developed deeper acquaintances among the local clergy in the mainland, especially through teaching in the seminaries and thereby coming to know young priests from their time of formation and accompanying them in their early years of ministry. He managed to develop a deep relationship with many of them. 
 
Yet Father Lepeu’s passion for the youth ministry had not left him. Now at the age of 52, while pursuing a Ph.D in Ecclesiology with special reference to the Church in China, his entry point is youth ministry in the Chinese Church.
 
He travels to the mainland to get in touch with the young people, to learn about their experience of faith and to understand the emergence of a new form of Church from the given circumstances. 
 
In spite of all the gloomy pictures we have from the mainland, the youth ministry is full of hope, said Father Lepeu. 
 
“Incredible things are happening among the Christian youth in China,” he said, adding, “For example, we in Hong Kong do have a programme for the university students. We get an average of 50 youth to participate in them and we are very happy. But in a place in China, you get 500 or more.”
 
He feels that today’s young people are too busy with numerous activities and it becomes extremely difficult to find a suitable time to gather them together. One way to tackle the issue is to let them learn from experiences—experimental learning. 
 
“When I look back at the past 25 years of priesthood, my heart is full of gratitude for the ways in which the Lord has guided me,” he said. “This is what I wish to share with the youngsters who are in the process of discernment—that they be open to be guided by the Spirit. They may not know what the future holds for them. Nothing can be planned. All that you can plan is to be open for the future, whatever it is!” 
 
His future plans? 
“In the early years of my priesthood, I had a lot of ideas and projects in mind. But now I realise that I don’t have any specific plans!” Father Lepeu said. 
 
“My big desire is to serve the Church in China. Experiences have taught me to let go! I am open for anything. I never imagined that I would go back to my books or I would do a Ph.D,” he said.
 
“When I left France, my motto was to be like Abraham of the book of Genesis. He left his homeland without knowing where he was going. But wherever he went, he built altars to God in thanksgiving. Another biblical figure that motivated me was Ruth. What she said to Naomi, her mother in law, is true for me too: ‘Don’t ask me to leave you and to stop going with you, for wherever you go, I shall go; wherever you live, I shall live. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God’” (Ruth 1:16). 
 
The Sunday Examiner extends our prayerful wishes to Father Bruno Lepeu on his Sacerdotal Silver Jubilee. 

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