By DEIRDRE C. MAYS
Like most people, Father Rick LaBrecque wonders what life will be like in Hong Kong after returning to Chinese sovereignity, but his curiosity is made more intense, having seen the island recently in its before state.
The pastor of St. James Church in Conway traveled to the island for a 10-day vacation in May. Thanks to the hospitality of the Maryknoll community in Hong Kong, he had many opportunities to visit churches and monasteries and meet native Catholics, both religious and laity.
But Father LaBrecque said he didn’t know what to expect when he arrived in the country. A Maryknoll missionary had visited St. James Parish last summer and extended an invitation for the South Carolina priest to stay in their community, located in Stanley on the southern part of the island.
The missionary’s experience, in combination with his own desire to return to Asia after a visit to Japan 15 years back, piqued Father LaBrecque’s interest. So, he cashed in his frequent flier mileage and met his longtime friend, Father Jim Nickel, a Sacred Heart priest from Washington D.C., in Hong Kong.
“When I got there I found that the church is a major presence in Hong Kong,” he said. “I was told that something like half of the children are educated in church schools yet only 10 percent or so of the people are Catholic.”
The priests visited many tourist sites, and Father LaBrecque said that the Catholic churches he saw were mainstream and modern. But he wondered how the Catholic faith will be able to operate when that relgious system is so different from what the Chinese government allows. The Catholic Church in China has two faces: the government-approved church which does not have official ties to the Vatican (bishops are appointed by the state) and the “underground” Roman Catholic Church.
Father LaBrecque mused that the Supreme Court in Hong Kong will probably have to change the way it commences its sessions because, as an independent country, it began with the Roman Catholic bishop alternating with the Anglican bishop saying the opening prayer. Circumstances like that, he said are just a drop in the bucket in terms of the changes that will be made.
But Father LaBrecque and Father Nickel received a more substantial taste of what was to come with a Marxist-approach to government when Father Tom Peyton, the regional superior of the Maryknoll community, arranged for them to go to mainland China for three days.
They started in Kong Moon, south of Canton, at the original site of the Maryknoll center. Three American priests are stationed in that city as English professors at a local university. They are not allowed to perform any religious activities in public nor do they wear any clothing denoting religious affiliation.
The priests took them to a compound that is the location of the original cathedral, bishop’s house and convent which was seized in the 1949 communist revolution and given back to the regional Catholic church in the 1980’s. A Chinese priest and several sisters live there.
One of the sisters is a Roman Catholic nun who was part of the original Immaculate Heart of Mary community founded by Bishop James Walshe. Father LaBrecque said she was something of an enigma because, in the 1950’s, native priests and sisters were told to live “normal” lives, get married, get jobs. Some, like this sister, did not and secretly remained as religious until they were allowed to return to their lifestyle in the 1980’s.
“When we walked into the mission compound I saw a woman who looked like a housekeeper, we smiled and said hello to her and went on our way,” Father LaBrecque said. “We were later told she was a spy, the official communist party person on the premises. One of the priests told us the story of how, on Pentecost Sunday, the church was packed with people and the Mass was about to start. She came to the sacristy and told the Chinese priest that they could not have Mass so everybody had to leave. There was no problem, it was just to remind them who is in charge. The next week they held Mass and everything was fine.”
When he asked people if they were concerned about the future of their faith, Father LaBrecque found people reluctant to say much.
“They have to be optimistic but they won’t give voice to fear they have,” he said, “because they don’t want a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Father LaBrecque and Father Nickel also visited the island of Sincian where St. Francis Xavier was buried. To get there they took a three-hour bus ride. A gentleman struck up a conversation with the priest and asked his profession. LaBrecque knew the word for it in Chinese shen fu which translates as “spiritual leader.”
He wasn’t very interested in the fact that Father LaBrecque was a priest. “In fact, people always asked me what my profession was and they always seemed delighted to know I was a shen fu if they were Christians, otherwise they were ambivalent,” he said.
Father LaBrecque continues to wonder what is in store for Hong Kong.
“I learned a lot about the reality of the past, present and questions marks of the future,” he said. “But the official party line is quoted everywhere. It is one nation with two systems. I have returned with a sense of the challenges that face the Chinese.”