Last week, and last weekend in particular, was very significant to Rosita and I. Rosita was baptized last Saturday and has taken the name Magdalene, after Saint Mary Magdalene.
I was baptized very young. My first school was a Catholic school and I got baptized together with most if not all of the classmates. In the Fifties and Sixties, the Catholic Church in Hong Kong operated many schools, hospitals and social services. It was a time when people moved across from the mainland by the thousands each day and the Government tried its level best to cope with the social issues thus generated. Most people were poor. Many started as squatters or lived in very crowded shacks. The Church, catholic or whatever denomination, came in handy and provided them very much needed relieves in the form of food, clothing and financial aid, which could have been a motivation for many families to join the Church those days.
Soon I passed my Joint Primary School Examinations and got into a secondary school run by the Jesuits. In addition to having one to two sessions on Religious Knowledge each week, we also had a session a week of Private Reading or P.R. during which students were free to read or do anything constructive. The Jesuit priests would encourage students to visit the school chapel, or listen to religious music in the Music Room, or do some catching up on homework. Some priests would use the session to discuss catechism with students with a view to encouraging them to join the Catholic Church. As for me, I would use these sessions either to brush up my Latin for the Mass – because I was an altar boy – or visit the chapel where I would fall asleep very quickly.
We had interesting arguments with the Jesuits over the need to baptize people, and we had a joke that training a fire hose on a congregation would be the best and most efficient means to expand the Church. Contrary to popular belief, the population of Catholics in Hong Kong has not fallen, although the percentage of Catholics over total population has. For example, in 1970, we had about 240,000 Catholics, representing about 6% of the population. In 2002, we had 355,000, but the percentage had fallen to 5.2. Nevertheless, worldwide there are over one billion Catholics and quite a few countries are over 85% Catholic. I think it is the declining number of men and women joining the vocation that is worrying. Thus 30 years ago, there were over 1.7 million in the religious hierarchy, but by the end of 2002, the number dropped to 1.2 million, with men and women in the ratio of 1:2. By comparison, Hong Kong is not doing too badly: we have about 300 priests and 500 nuns, but inevitably, the priest to faithful ratio has suffered.
My more serious and personal religious encounters took place, however, when I was in the University. I became associated with the Student Union’s Catholic Society, the Legion of Mary and later the Better World Movement. The Catholic Society was mainly a social club, but it organized a fair share of religious functions for undergraduates and graduates in addition to the very popular summer camps. The Legion of Mary met every week for prayers and for allocation of work, including hospital visits and other charitable duties. The Better World Movement was very active in Japan and was popularized by Jesuits. Members met for prayers, discussions and action plans that would make the world a better place in which to live. I was active in all these to the point that I would carry out what the principal officials asked me to do without asking why, and had never questioned how those jobs could be done better. After I graduated and had a full time job, I could not find time to maintain my membership with these movements, but I kept seeing the Jesuit priests I have known, through the various alumni activities. Nevertheless, I had by then a rather well defined framework of my relation with God my Creator, though I could not say the same about my relation with other fellow creatures.
Rosita was brought up in a school run by Anglicans. She must have gone to their prayer meetings and what not, but she did not become a Protestant, nor had she joined their Church. After we decided to get married, I took her to Reverend Father Deignan for weekly catechism. They both worked hard, but as the Reverend Father said to me afterwards in a reflective mood, maybe he and I had not worked hard enough. By the time we were to marry in the Church, she could not convince herself to be baptized. That was December 1976.
Rosita has always been very close with her parents and siblings even after she becomes the only one not living in the United States. None in the family is a Christian yet, and her younger brother and his wife are the only ones who profess to have any religious faith. They have taken to Buddhism and her brother in particular has been giving her coaching and literature on Buddhism primarily to enable Rosita to attain peace of mind. She did not, at least not very often. He would include her name in his daily prayers to his Buddha and has given her artifacts and relics that would afford her more protection.
God certainly works in a most mysterious manner; and it has to be the work of the Holy Spirit. A few months ago, and even before her doctors took her off all chemo drugs, Rosita decided to take up the Christian faith and be baptized in due course. We went to Father Deignan again who was very pleased to resume her catechism class and to work on this unfinished business. We were planning to have her baptized in Christmas 2004 or Easter 2005 in a group. After a few sessions, Father Deignan was convinced that she was ready and suggested that she be baptized as soon as possible so that she could enjoy as much as possible the love, affection and happiness of the God in whom she has commended herself and put all her trust. That was May 2004.
In the time available, we broke the news to the community of Catholic friends with whom we had contacts; I told my own club and a few close friends and Rosita told hers. It being a Saturday morning and a working day for Hong Kong, many might not be able to find time for the ceremony.
Those of you who turned up for the ceremony would agree that it was a very beautiful ceremony. We had hoped to print the text of the ceremony for you to follow, but there was no time, and as Father Deignan said, most of the readily available text would be more appropriate for children. I cannot recall the last baptism for an adult I went to and Rosita certainly had not attended one in her life except the one for our two children, performed also by Father Deignan when they were very small, over 20 years ago.
The Baptism was followed by Confirmation and the Holy Eucharist so that Rosita Magdalene had three sacraments in a row. For Catholics, a sacrament is a visible ceremony instituted by Jesus Christ Himself, which represents and confers sanctifying grace on those who receive it worthily. There are seven in all. In addition to the three mentioned, there are Penance, Anointing of the Sick, Holy Orders and Matrimony.
Baptism is regarded as the most necessary of the sacraments, because without Baptism, one cannot enter Heaven, and without Baptism, one cannot receive the other sacraments. By definition, Baptism destroys all sins, both original and actual in those who sincerely come into the Church; remits whatever punishment they have deserved; makes them Children of God and of the Church; and renders them capable of receiving the other sacraments. The ceremony is full of symbolism and visible signs to enhance and reinforce the meaning behind it.
You may ask whether it would be necessary for Rosita Magdalene to take the sacrament of Matrimony. I have consulted Father Deginan. It won’t be necessary, he advised. The theological explanation is that the sacrament of Baptism would repair or make good the ceremony of Matrimony we took in 1976 in Church.
We thank everyone who was there last Saturday and those who wanted to be there but could not. We also thank our friends for the various gifts, large and small, presented to Rosita Magdalene on the occasion. We receive all gifts with gratitude and would treasure them always. All of them are very beautiful and extremely thoughtful. Of particular mention is the priceless sacred relic given to her by a friend who has kept it in the family for over 35 years during which she had witnessed a series of events that she could only describe as miracles. There is nothing I can say to thank this generous friend sufficiently; and we would remember her in our prayers always. This friend has since told me that she was given the relic by a Sister in her eighties when she found her sitting haplessly in the school chapel after her mother was admitted suddenly to intensive care. The old Sister had kept the relic for sometime which had apparently came from a Carmelite Sister in the Order of St Teresa of Avila (1515 –1582). I would try to learn more from Father Deignan on the matter when I see him next.
For me and Rosita Magdalene, that was the highlight of last week, a week marked by the release of the third Harry Potter movie the box office takings for which threatened to exceed those for Shrek 2, the death of a US President who had lived the longest, the 60th anniversary of the Allies landing at Normandy, and locally, street demonstrations and endless rhetoric between politicians over among other things, freedom of speech.
I hope to talk to you soon.