CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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History of diocesan building commission mirrors growth in lay involvement


HONG KONG (SE): The Year of the Laity, which is being marked in the diocese of Hong Kong with an international conference on lay ministry involving Chinese communities from around the world, has been a time of looking back at past developments and forward towards possibilities in the future.

A timely paper produced in September last year by Japanese architect, Ayako Fukushima, studies the development of lay involvement in the building of parish facilities and churches in the territory, and while it primarily looks at the changing paradigm of lay involvement in Church management, by its very nature it reveals insights into how attitudes, both clerical and lay, have changed over the decades.

The study done by the assistant professor of architecture and historic design at Kyushu University in Fukuoka, Japan, identifies three quite distinct periods of involvement of professional lay people in Church building affairs since the Second Vatican Council closed in the mid-1960s, when the foundations began to be laid.

The second phase, which runs from about 1970 up to around 1990, she describes as a time when things began to be organised structurally, but remained ad hoc and had limited influence.

From the establishment of a diocesan commission solely dedicated to building project management in 1995, the involvement became firmly established and systematic, something that she describes as being rare in Asia.

Fukushima notes that in the early days of the mission in Hong Kong, almost every building project was determined, or limited, by available funds.

Then with the rapid influx of refugees and sudden growth in the Catholic population, structures went up on a to-meet-immediate-need basis, and became a complex of refugee service centres or schools, which also served as places of worship.

“As for the laity or parishioners as end-users of worship places, they had no say in how to build or renovate their own church,” Fukushima notes in her paper, Catholic laity involvement in Church building projects, published in the Journal of Architecture and Building Science in September 2011.

She quotes Li Ng Suk-kay as saying in a doctoral thesis in 1978 that the design of new worship places was discussed and decided upon between parish priest and consultant architect, adding that even though many parishioners wanted to be involved in the process, priests normally were more absorbed in the pastoral problems facing them.

She notes that this did cause quite a bit of dissatisfaction among parishioners.

In this context, she points out that Vatican II had redefined the importance of Church governance by committee, rather than absolute rule of a procurator or bishop.

Fukushima pinpoints the establishment of the Liturgical Art and Architecture Committee in 1977 as the turning point in Hong Kong diocese.

She notes that it was tasked “to establish liturgical architecture and art disciplines… evaluate and advise on designs for construction, restoration and renovation of churches and Mass centres prepared by the diocesan procuration and explore localisation of liturgical architecture and art.”

But the downside was that the makeup of the committee was top heavy with priests, together with one sister, and it had no decision-making power.

However, Li Ng said that at a minimum it did show that the conciliar principle of cooperation was at least accepted in theory, but few in the clergy believed that the laity was ready to accept such responsibilities.

This was compounded by the pressure the diocese was under to develop new schools and facilities quickly to meet the needs of a burgeoning Catholic population and, after the death of the Italian brother who was acting as the building superintendent in the procuration in 1984, no replacement was appointed.

However, in 1992, it was mentioned that a lay architect working on a volunteer basis was acting as a consultant and project manager for some projects.

People involved at this time point to the fundamental problem as being that no standard method of building had been adopted by the diocese, but as technical defects in hastily erected buildings began to appear in the 1980s the need for greater expertise became more apparent.

It was not until Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai returned from studies in Rome in 1985 and was appointed to the Diocesan Liturgical Commission that a serious push began to create a functioning body to oversee all construction, alteration and maintenance work in the diocese.

Then in 1987, Bishop John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung commissioned a study to identify future directions for the Church and many people put up the proposal to make use of all possible ways to upgrade the status of the laity in the diocese and increase its participation in all areas of Catholic life.

In 1992, the bishop made “provisions for a wider and more active participation of laypeople in the life of the Church, enhancing their consultative role.”

A new commission for building was formed and, while still more than half clerical, was given the job of making policies for diocesan building projects.

However, in 1995 there were more complaints about the lack of communication between priests and people over building projects. 

Later that year, after some pushing from a property management professional named Simon Li, the bishop put a permanent body into place called the Diocesan Building and Development Commission.

This has developed into a professional body with a full time administrator, who is an architect registered by the government to serve as a project manager.

Fukushima concludes that lessons to be learned from this experience show that although the project was a long time getting off the ground, each phase did achieve something and was also able to build on the achievements of the preceding phase.

In addition, the particular history of Hong Kong possibly explains why it was so slow to get off the mark. As the diocese had relied heavily on foreign mission societies to fund individual projects, or subsidies from funds in the Vatican, traditionally, many projects had been managed within quite small circles of responsibility.

Although the first two stages of the commission’s life often staggered, things were accomplished in both eras, which show that progress is often made not only through planning, but also by actually doing things and learning from the experience.

Priests often complained that the laity did not have adequate appreciation of the needs of a parish complex, especially when it came to designing his living and working quarters, while laypeople felt that the priests did not understand their wishes and desires in terms of worship space and other facilities around a parish.

While no doubt there is truth on both sides, the end result does show that with the will to learn from each other and act together, difficult things can be achieved, not only in terms of building projects, but in all areas of Church life and relationships.


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