This week, we will continue a series of excerpts from Father Ho Lung's bio, written by Joseph Pearce - 'Candles in the Dark' - Chapter Three
Father Ho Lung insists that he takes the teaching on inculturation seriously and that his liturgical music in the Jamaican dialect and with Caribbean rhythms is nothing more - or less - than an open-hearted effort to evangelise the poor. "I really wasn't trying to be rebellious or anything. I was just trying to do what I thought was emerging from myself naturally. And what emerged was this music. I love the language; I love the rhythms. I said okay, let it be." Ho Lung refers to his early liturgical compositions as an effort to speak to the poor in a language that they would understand. "I wrote those early songs because I saw the kids were so bored at Mass. And then to my amazement, the kids were really enjoying Mass. They were praying, they were coming on retreats and were working with the poor. So that affirmed it for me. If the tree was beginning to bear fruit, let's go with it."
Anybody who has attended a Mass at which the brothers of the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP) are singing and swaying, and in some cases dancing, to their founder father's liturgical music will agree that boredom is the one word that could never be applied to the animating power at work in the spirit of this Caribbean liturgy. On one occasion in 2011, during the inaugural Mass of the new Holy Innocents Centre, which had been established to tackle the evils of abortion and to help poor pregnant mothers; around thirty brothers, resplendent in white habits, danced and sang in choreographed synchronicity around the altar. It was astonishing to see, at least from the perspective of tradition-oriented Catholics raised on the solemnity and decorum of chant.
After the Mass, I was approached by a young seminarian from the United States, one of about eight seminarians from the Saint Paul Seminary in Minnesota who had come to Jamaica to work with the MOP. He asked me what I had thought of the exuberant liturgy that we had just experienced. Well, I said with a smile, it was magnificent, but I wouldn't want to see anything similar in my own parish. Judging by the way in which the puzzled and perplexed look on the young man's face evaporated, it seemed that he had been reassured by my answer. The point is that the Caribbean Mass works when it is sung by those with the fire and fervour of the MOP. The power, the passion, and the presence of the Spirit of God are unmistakable. I suspect, however, that its impact and its suitability for the liturgy will diminish the further that it gets from the inspired charism of Father Ho Lung and the inspiring zeal of the MOP. Indeed, I can only imagine how tawdry it would sound if efforts were made to transplant it to an average Catholic parish in Europe or the United States.
The ultimate purpose of inculturation, as taught by great popes, such as Leo XIII, Pius XI, Pius XII, and John Paul II is the spreading of the good news through the adaptation of the Church to local circumstances. It is the ability of the Church to speak in tongues. Yet the Church has always taught that the many tongues are at the service of the One Voice. In this sense, the Word of the Church is never foreign, wherever it is preached. We must never forget that the evangelist is never an imperialist. Only those who do not know the Good News that the evangelist brings can believe that his message is 'foreign'. Christ and the Gospel are at home everywhere because Christ is Himself the Home that every man seeks, whether he knows it or not. In this sense, the native American child who was taught to sing Palestrina by the Jesuits in the jungles of eighteenth century south America is not the victim of foreign imperialism, but the recipient of a holy gift. The argument for bringing Father Ho Lung's Caribbean Mass to the ghettos of Jamaica is not, therefore, rooted in a desire to keep out foreign polyphony or 'old-fashioned' Gregorian chant, but on the contrary, is an effort to reach people who cannot be reached by polyphony or chant. It is meeting the people where they are, not an acceptance that this is the only place that they can be. If Father Ho Lung's music attracts people to the Church, it will move them to places where Palestrina will be more accessible.
I hope that the foregoing is not an argument with Father Ho Lung, but an argument for him. I believe, in fact, that he would be in essential agreement with what I have said. Evidence for this can be seen in the development of Father Ho Lung's own music, especially his non-liturgical music, which in recent years, has become more complex, incorporating elements of the Broadway musical and even, more recently, elements of classic European opera. Needless to say, he doesn't see the incorporation of these ingredients into his music as foreign in the derogatory sense of that word, but as a means of raising his own people up, enabling them to ascend to heights that transcend the limitations of the ghetto. What is true of the eighteenth century Amazonian Indian learning Palestrina is true of the twenty-first century Jamaican learning elements of opera.
Ultimately, Father Ho Lung's orthodoxy in terms of his preaching and practice of inculturation is not in doubt. Indeed, it is confirmed by his affinity for the early Jesuit, St Francis Xavier, whom he names as his favourite saint. Since St Francis Xavier is the patron saint of missionaries, and since he led a life of zeal in converting the people of India and Japan to the Catholic faith, it can hardly be argued that Father Ho Lung has an aversion to the bringing of the Gospel to non-Christian cultures. Equally important, however, is the fact that Father Ho Lung's great Jesuit forebear could also be considered the patron saint of inculturation. As Robert Schreiter notes in The Legacy of St Francis Xavier: Inculturation of the Gospel Then and Now: Notable about Xavier was his commitment to learning languages. He realised that without being able to communicate with people in their own medium, the effectiveness of his preaching would be much diminished. As imperfectly as he managed to achieve proficiency, he recognised the necessity of striving to speak in the language of the people whom he was addressing.
Father Ho Lung is following faithfully in the footsteps of his favourite saint. His primary language is the universal language of love, shining forth in his work for the poorest of the poor, but another language that he has always used is the universal language of music.
If music be the food of love, as Shakespeare maintained, Father Ho Lung has fed the poor of Jamaica with a charitable feast.