This week, we will continue a series of excerpts from Father Ho Lung's bio, written by Joseph Pearce
In a childhood filled mostly with joy, the saddest moment of Father Ho Lung's childhood was a neighbour girl's descent into immorality:
"We lived right next to people who were very, very poor, and I remember that there was a girl in the neighbourhood. She was about four or five years older than me, but she was always very nice and that's what was distressing. She was about fourteen years old and she began to dress in a way that disturbed me and my sister. I was about ten years old and didn't understand these things at that time. I came to understand because I was fond of her, and so was my sister. She was clearly advertising herself. The men in the area began to laugh at her and called her a whore. I didn't know the word, but I got a sense of its meaning from the derisory attitude of the men. So I went up to her and asked her whether she was a whore. She looked at me and started to cry. She told me never to call her that again. I said, "But are you?" And she said, "I do bad things." I said, "But you don't have to do those bad things." As time went on, he began to realise that they were growing apart and that she had chosen another path. Then she began to become very flagrant in her profession, and I got really mad. I began to really quarrel with her and went to my mother and father. "This is what is happening," I said. "This is what is happening here. Can you do anything about it? Can't you tell her?" His father told him that nothing could be done: "These things happen to people. You just have to accept it." More than sixty years later, Father Ho Lung still recalled the memory as "a very sad moment in my life".
LOVE OF MUSIC
Meanwhile at Alvernia Preparatory School, the young Buddhist boy was being taught by Sister Mary Elizabeth, an Irish-American from New York. "What really drew me to Sister Mary Elizabeth was her tremendous love of music," he remembered. She used to dance and sing. When Irish Eyes Are Smiling was a favourite and she told the children that it was the greatest song that had ever been written. Danny Boy was another song that she sang often. "She would be at the piano banging away while she danced and all the rest of it. She was a real source of mystery to me, and had such a love for the children. She protected us. She watched over us. She taught us everything that she knew. She wanted to pass the knowledge on to us, and that was very powerful to me." She told stories about the life of Christ, of whom Richard knew very little at the time, "of His tenderness and how He took care of the sick, the blind, the deaf, and how He welcomed little children to Himself and was crucified because of our sins and our weaknesses". Whereas Buddhism was impersonal, with no clear indication of a divinity defined and visible and real, Christ was a real life Person: "I can't say that I felt dissatisfied with my Buddhism, but once we were told about Christ by the Franciscan sisters, you just felt enthralled and satisfied and just overwhelmed by this Christ. Christ who walked upon the waters. Christ who multiplied loaves. Christ who died upon the Cross. The sisters talked about Christ in a way that we really understood."
I asked Father Ho Lung about the enduring influence of oriental and Franciscan nature mysticism on the spirituality of the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP). I greatly admired the way that the Brothers had turned their communities into beautiful places with landscaped gardens, mango and other fruit-bearing trees, aviaries, aquaria, and livestock. I wondered whether there was a correlation between the Buddhist respect and love for nature and the similar Franciscan charism. I was thinking of the nature mysticism of Father Ho Lung's mother and the beauty of Saint Francis' Canticle to Brother Sun. I also couldn't help seeing a parallel between Saint Francis stripping himself naked of all his worldly goods and walking into the woods to wed his Lady Poverty and Father Ho Lung's similar stripping himself of all worldly comforts to serve the poorest of the poor. In spite of his Jesuit background, I wondered about this apparent Franciscan dimension to his spirituality. Was there a connection between his childhood Buddhism and the subsequent influence of the Franciscan sisters, and has this found expression in the spirituality of the Missionaries of the Poor?
"There is a real connection," Father Ho Lung replied, "But only upon reflection. You can see the way we were brought up was really to love nature and to respect it and to understand how precious every bit of creation is. And Jamaica is a country just filled with so much beauty, so much natural beauty. But also the people. We learned at a very, very tender age to respect people of all ages. I think the Franciscan aspect of nature also came in because Sister Mary Elizabeth, this wonderful woman, taught us about caring for flowers, little violets and various tropical plants. She used to tell us the names of them, and she would have us work in the garden as part of our classes. So you're right. The Buddhism led us in that direction, and Jamaica being so naturally beautiful, and then the dearest of teachers being so respectful of nature as Christians; all of this set the background for what is now MOP spirituality."
Looking back, Father Ho Lung laughs as he recalls the moment that Sister Mary Elizabeth told him and Loretta that they needed to become Catholics. She did so with evangelical zeal and pre-Vatican II bluntness, dropping a hint that was as subtle as a bombshell. "Look," she said, "You've been coming to the school and you haven't become Catholic. Do you know what happens to people who don't become Catholic? After they die, they go to Hell. Do you want to go to Hell?"
As Father Ho Lung laughed at the recollection of the memory, I commented that this was certainly a good old-fashioned way of winning converts.
"It was perfect though," he responded. "It was very effective. We were a bit scared, and we agreed to become Catholics . . . but really happily. It's just that we didn't know how to approach it ourselves."
Richard and Loretta were duly baptised into the Catholic Church on May 6, 1948, with the blessing of their parents. As already noted, their mother would be received into the Church two years later, whereas their father would not finally be baptised until 1969, just five years before his death.
Shortly after his reception, Richard remembered walking past the school chapel. He had been taught to bow as he passed by the entrance, but this time, seeing the light near the tabernacle, he went in. "There was something so sacred about the whole chapel and the sense of the presence of God. I knelt down, and I prayed. I felt very deeply the presence of the Lord, and knew that this was what I wanted."
Little could the young convert have known it at the time, but he was embarking upon a lifelong love affair.