2015 ASIA-PACIFIC COMMON STUDY: MISSION IN ASIA’S SHOPPING DISTRICT

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2015 ASIA-PACIFIC COMMON STUDY
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In March of 2007 in Japan, the major superiors of the Asia-Pacific region met, forging the path for the creation of the Asia-Pacific Dominican Common Study Program. The first Common Study Program (CSP) was held in the Philippines in 2008. Since then it has continually provided venues for inter-cultural gatherings endeavoring to strengthen the friars’ “commitment to the Dominican intellectual and spiritual tradition” and in deepening their “formation for the mission in the region.” This year the Asia-Pacific Common Study Program was held in Cheung Chau Island, Hong Kong, from June 15 to July 11, 2015.  

Four delegates from the Philippines were sent to the 2015 Asia-Pacific Common Study in Hong Kong: Br. Carlo Rey Canto, OP, Br. Christopher Garinganao, OP, Br. Michael Sales, OP, and Br. Martius Richmond Lechuga, OP. Together with other delegates - five priests from India, three priests from Pakistan, two brothers from China, a priest from Solomon Islands and a deacon from Papua New Guinea, they made up the Dominican Asia-Pacific inter-cultural community. Unfortunately our brothers from Vietnam were not able to join due to visa application problems.

Encountering the same difficulty, but still fortunate enough to be able to join the CSP, our Pakistani brothers were not given an extension to stay in Hong Kong. Their status compelled them to arrive late in the program and to leave early. One event that saddened many of us, when despite the Pakistani friars’ religious affiliation, having had tickets for the trip and having a host community, they were barred by the Immigration officers to go to Macau right at the ferry station. Such events heightened the sense of an inter-cultural community in ways where race, color, nationality, and culture become defining traits in the manner authorities perceive the individual. These experiences become means of educating us to get along with national policies, to suspend any talks of persons as imago Dei, and simply relish, in our case, the perks of having Philippine passports.

The Master of Students for the program was Fr. Amirtha Raj, OP. He has a peculiar way of expressing his complete trust in us and our guardian angels. According to him, we have our Octopus, a credit card used to pay for transportation in Hong Kong, together with the addresses of the retreat house and the Dominican convent in Hong Kong, in case we get lost. Hong Kong is small, he said, so he will not be worried in case we get astray. More or less his message cuts across like “You are old enough to find your way home.” We all laughed the laughter of confident men. With a few words he admirably set his mark: it was his way of initiating us into the life of a missionary. But of course we were missionaries armed with Google map. Fr. Raj is a thoroughly pleasant man to be with. Intelligent but not intimidating, broad minded but focused, organized but not constricting; all throughout, he nurtured us as Dominican friars in mission.

Friar-Mentors

With the presence of other mentors from around Asia-Pacific, our Common Study has truly become quintessentially Dominican. As well, their cultural backgrounds alone opened up realities far beyond our own: Fr. John Kim, OP, from Korea and Fr. Jarvis Sy Hao, OP, from the Holy Rosary Province shared about Dominican Preaching and Dominican Missions in China respectively, during the first week; on the second week Fr. Amirtha Raj, OP, from India, shared on the psychological aspects of transitioning from initial to on-going formation; and Fr. Enrico Gonzales, OP, from the Philippines, shared on the basic principles on St. Thomas Aquinas, focusing on the importance of study for Dominicans. Their insights were well grounded on their experiences as pastors, missionaries, formators and academicians. Coming from varied fields and cultures they offered a unique landscape of the Dominicans in the Asia-Pacific region: incarnating our history, charism, and missions accordingly.       

Hong Kong and Cheung Chau Island

Fr. Javier Gonzalez Izquierdo, OP, the Prior Provincial of the Holy Rosary Province, stressed that the best way to know Hong Kong is to experience it. Verily, experience reshaped the way we think of Hong Kong. Experience cures myopia.

On airplane arriving in Hong Kong, we saw tall condominium buildings more or less of the same design and color, neatfully arranged like lego blocks. Practically the whole city was confined at the foot of the mountains. The mountains were green and rarely have any structures on them. According to Fr. Jarvis Sy Hao, (a Chinese-Filipino and our excellent Hong Kong-Macau Dominican-tourist guide) Hong Kong has a law mandating to keep a certain percent of their country green. If there was anything we had in mind, it was superb urban planning. Such display of restraint on the part of Hongkongers (that is how they call themselves, not Chinese), reveal their strength, vision and a sense of national consciousness engendering citizens who are willing to make personal sacrifices, such that they thrive in narrow spaces while we on the other hand seem at a loss with our sprawling lands.   

Fr. Jarvis confided to us that many rich people in Hong Kong do not own mansions. Some even live in condominiums twice the size of a Corista’s room. Since wealth cannot be displayed or invested in real estate properties, they showcase their affluence in expensive cars, clothes and food. Parking lots are most of the time twice more expensive than cars, resulting to very few private cars on the streets of Hong Kong. Paradoxically Hong Kong has the highest density of privately owned luxury cars in the world.

As a country Hong Kong is an archipelago. The venue where the Common Study was held is located on a smaller island called Cheung Chau. The island is around 45 minutes away by ferry from the Central pier in Hong Kong. From the port of Cheung Chau, you will have to take a fifteen-minute hike to reach the Salesian Retreat House. Seated on a splendid spot, the retreat house faces the sea with waves hitting the rocks below it. In effect, you wake up to bird songs and the sound of the sea that made the Common Study a really pleasurable experience. 

Practically you have to walk or ride a bicycle to reach any destination in the island. Motorized vehicles, a little bit wider than Mr. Bean’s car, are limited to police cars and ambulances. The busiest part of the island is the bay area where restaurants, shops, schools, a public bath, off-track betting station, a Catholic Church, several Buddhist temples and wet market are located. The moment you go uphill everything begins to be quiet. 

We were lucky enough to be housed in Cheung Chau because it is home to Hong Kong’s “intangible culture.” Despite having Catholic and Protestant retreat houses in the island, the people of Cheung Chau still retain the beliefs of their ancestors. Politically aware, its inhabitants freely express their sentiments to the government during their festivities. The beaches around Cheung Chau, with the rest of Hong Kong, are not clear, like Boracay is clear. In their case you have the color of Manila Bay’s sea, only that it is safe for swimming. The presence of well trained life-guards, perimeter nets, rescue equipment and sun bathing Caucasian tourists around bay areas impressed us all. What they lack in natural resources they compensate for with efficient management, long term plans and excellent staff. Consider this; they are all government run. Most of us coming from poorer countries were extremely jealous. Even the farthest end of the island has garbage bin. Such discipline and meticulous planning is seen all over Hong Kong.              

Macau

Macau is a little laid back compared to Hong Kong. The Dominican presence there is already more than 400 years old. One of the oldest churches in Macau, St. Dominic’s Church (Our Lady of the Rosary Church), was founded by the Dominicans in 1587. It still functions as a church though under the care of the Macau government. Interestingly, since 1929 the statue of Our Lady of Fatima which is enshrined in the Church is honored in a procession every 13th of May. Portuguese footprints could be seen everywhere: hanging plants, ceramic street signs, a charming plaza and old tiled-roof buildings. Although known for its casinos, our experience in Macau is less of a commercial hotspot than a unique flavorful cultural experience.

St. Dominic’s Priory is a building with an interesting story behind its purchase. Our brothers there sure told the tale in fascination. Nevertheless providence played a role since the building sits just by the main street. Also, we were fortunate enough to have witnessed the solemn profession of four Burmese brothers held in a chapel at the first floor of the Priory. It is worth mentioning that we were able to attend too the vestition and simple profession of our brothers in Hong Kong. To have attended these significant events in the religious life of our brothers is indeed a great blessing.             

Inter-religious Dialogue: Buddhist and Taoist Experience

We went to one Buddhist temple and two Taoist temples. For our Buddhist inter-religious dialogue, we went to Po Lin Monastery in Lantau island. We were welcomed by the Buddhist monk Wang Ching who also gave us a lecture in an elegant hall. Po Lin monastery manages the biggest outdoor, bronze and sitting Buddha statue in the world.

The first of the Taoist temples we went to was Yuen Yuen Taoist Temple in Tsuen Wan, Hong Kong. Dr. Tong Wai-ki, the president of the Taoist Hong Kong Association, greeted us and hosted an open forum together with his other officers. The second temple we went to is managed by the Sik Sik Yuen Institute. Located in Kowloon, the Wong Tai Sin Temple enjoys a bigger crowd combining both the faithful and tourists. No less than the Abbot himself Lee Yiu-fai welcomed us and hosted an open forum together with other priests and officers.   

In all three visits, we were welcomed like dignitaries. We toured around religious sights only Prime Ministers and other very important persons have had access to. We took pictures of sacred objects Hongkongers probably did not even know exist. And most of all they arranged us lunch, which according to one of our guides, was prepared and served in every way fit for “very special people.” The generosity and dignity with which they received us are beyond words and truly heart-warming.

Challenges

Our month long Common Study made us feel the strong link between Hong Kong-Macau and the Philippines. Everywhere it seems there is a Philippine connection. We can go back to Catholic missionaries who either stayed or studied in the Philippines as preparation for their Chinese missions whereby they used Macau and Hong Kong as portals to China. Such connection continued on to our national hero Jose Rizal who stayed and worked in Macau and Hong Kong, and on to our national artist Nick Joaquin who briefly stayed in Rosaryhill, Hong Kong with an initial desire to become a Dominican. And to this day, the presence of Filipinas nurturing several generations of Hong Kong and Macau’s citizens (and probably their future leaders as well!), remains a strong unwritten bond we have between the two countries. The other side of this reality however demands much from the Church in terms of helping our migrant workers in these lands.   

By seeing historically the importance of Hong Kong and Macau for the evangelization of Asia, especially China, the Philippines started to appear as an amiable spot in the scheme of things. It ceased to be the center as we are wont to imagine and become a springboard, and we still are, for the great work of evangelization in Asia. The Asia-Pacific Common Study is indeed a milestone for us in this region by providing a seedbed for collaboration among young Dominicans by broadening their minds and hearts as one in mission. 

During the program several concerns surfaced. Our Pakistani and Indian brothers, for instance, confront entirely different challenges from our own, such as life threatening religious oppressions and as being a minority religion in their respective countries. Our Chinese brothers of the Holy Rosary Province are constantly under the watch of the Chinese government. One of our fathers there was recently abducted by the “police” and released only after several weeks. That priest studied at the University of Santo Tomas in Manila, Philippines. Our brothers from Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea face pastoral challenges: they have limited ministries and usually attached to the diocese. The work ahead is still vast and promising.    

In Gratitude

Our deepest gratitude to Fr. Bruno Cadore, Master of the Order, who sent his greetings to us through Fr. Vincent Lu, OP, the Socius to the Master of the Order for Asia-Pacific.  To Fr. Vincent who joined us for several days and whose company strengthened our brotherhood. Special thanks to Fr. Javier Gonzales, OP, Provincial of the Holy Rosary Province for being so generous to us and never even hesitated to personally offer his help. The zeal for the mission of the Holy Rosary fathers have been most inspiring, considering the ever persistent difficulties and challenges of their Chinese missions.

Also a great many thanks to the Dominican Province of the Philippines, specially to Prior Provincial Fr. Gerard Francisco Timoner III, OP, to Santo Domingo Convent specially to our Prior Fr. Giuseppe Pietro Arsciwals, OP, and to the Dominican Studentate Community headed by Fr. Pablo Tiong, OP.

By Br. Christopher P. Garinganao, OP

 

(10 August 2015)