The reggae priest

Published: Sunday | November 3, 2013 Comments 0

This week, we will continue a series of excerpts from Father Ho Lung's bio, written by Joseph Pearce, 'Candles in the Dark' (Chapter four)

FATHER Ho Lung's fidelity to the Magisterium of the Church manifested itself in an article in a Jamaican newspaper in September 1971, just a couple of months after his ordination.

The article defended the Church against the anti-Catholic bigotry and propaganda of a militant Protestant sect. The Florida-based sect, known as Laymen for Religious Liberty, was staging a programme of talks at the Oceana Hotel, entitled 'In Search of Anti-Christ,' the advertising materials for which displayed a prominent photograph of the pope at that time, Paul VI.

"What," asked the newly ordained priest, "Are we to infer from this title when juxtaposed with a picture of the head of the Catholic Church? What can we surmise to be the 'truth' that will be told about Catholic Jesuits, the title of the second day's talks?" Concluding that it could be safely inferred that the purpose of the talks would be to attack the Catholic Church scurrilously, Father Ho Lung proceeded with a spirited defense of the church in general and the church's role in Jamaica in particular:

"There are 180,000 Roman Catholics in this island: rich people, poor people, from the good and generous Issa family to the humble Miss Pansy, basic school teacher in Mona Common. Sir Alexander Bustamante was a Catholic. Marcus Garvey died a Catholic. Claude McKay, the poet; Roger Mais, the novelist, were Catholics. Many other prominent members of our society are Catholics. Over 65,000 students in this island are being educated mostly by Roman Catholics."

Playing the role of investigative journalist, Father Ho Lung phoned the Laymen for Religious Liberty, and was told that the group intended to attack "the hierarchy of the Catholic Church," leading him to defend the hierarchical character of the church against her detractors:

"The Catholic Church is a hierarchical church. Attacking the hierarchy means not only attacking our head, it means attacking Jamaican Archbishop Samuel Carter. It also means attacking Sr Benedict, Sr Maureen Clare, Sr Martin, Deacon Ronald Thwaites, Fr Alfred Lee, myself, and the many others who are part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church."

Our work

"And yes, we are engaged in the works for which the group says we should be given credit: we run orphanages, homes for the destitute, trade training centres, schools, hospitals, but as Mother Teresa states, we are not social workers. You cannot separate our works from who we are. We are part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church, and our intention is to be of use to our people and to bring Christ to them, to build up the kingdom of God.

I do not believe it is good for these visitors to come into our island and stir up controversy, create confusion, and foment division. Christ himself preached the Good News, not a message of hatred and disunity and divisiveness. I do not see the good news being preached by this group of visitors."

Priest's public debut

This broadside against sectarianism marked the newly ordained priest's public debut. It was his baptism of fire into the culture wars that were ripping twentieth-century society apart. It also illustrated certain attributes that would become a hallmark of his future ministry: the willingness to speak out publicly and defiantly against injustice, the love for Jamaica and its people, a love for the poor, and, above all, a love for Christ.

It also highlighted the influence of Mother Teresa on the young priest's development. He understood, as did she, that Catholics who give themselves in service to the poor are not merely social workers. They are not motivated primarily by the desire to make people more comfortable physically, but by the desire to serve Jesus in His presence among them. The Catholic missionary sees Jesus in the emaciated faces of the poor, and wants the poor to see Jesus in the faces of those who are helping them. As Mother Teresa said to US Senator Sam Brownback: "All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus. All for Jesus."

All for Jesus

Like Mother Teresa, Father Ho Lung would offer all for Jesus in a life of service to the poor. Such service would, however, lead him in surprising directions and find him in the most unexpected places. In 1973, it found him near the top of the record charts as the recording of one of his own songs, Sinner, by Father Ho Lung and Friends became a surprise hit single. One of Jamaica's main newspapers, the Daily Gleaner, voiced the surprise of everyone at the emergence of the reggae priest: "A 34-year-old Roman Catholic priest . . . and lecturer in the Literature department at UWI (University of the West Indies) . . . is, believe it or not, the island's newest reggae recording sensation." The priest's single was 'one of the most requested and fast selling records in town.'"

The Gleaner reported that Father Ho Lung had written Sinner as a riposte to Ernie Smith's Life Is Just for Living. This was confirmed many years later in Father Ho Lung's memories of his motivation for writing the song. "I was simply amazed at the discrepancies between the rich and the poor, and the lack of sensitivity on the part of those who had the means of helping to alleviate the situation. Ernie Smith had a song on the charts at that time called Life Is Just for Living, which I considered hedonistic and morally destructive to the island. I thought it needed to be countered so I wrote Sinner.

The lyrics of Sinner are a direct riposte to the lyrics of Smith's hit record:

Sinner you're going to hell.

Master, you've taken leave of yourself.

Man, you're good as dead,

Sitting in the sunshine,

Bathing in your wealth

Watching all the sufferers in hell . . .

Brother, please hear my plea,

You can help,

O can't you see,

Can't you see?

Man, you could be free,

Working in the sunshine,

Freeing up your wealth,

Helping all the sufferers in hell.

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