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A Christmas Mass behind bars

As another year begins, some of us will look back over the past regretting mistakes made, lost opportunities and past misdeeds.

However as the Christmas season comes before the year ends, for believers it is a time to renew spiritual vigour by focussing more on God and less for worldly things.

It is a moment to savour the joy of faith and its messages of hope, as the bishop of Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, implied in his homily at a Mass inside the prison.

We are so blessed, for even since his elevation as a cardinal, Cardinal Tong has been coming to celebrate Mass here inside the prison on the morning of Christmas Day for four consecutive years now.

The latest Mass, unlike the previous ones, was different to some extent, because he delivered most of his homily in English, instead of Cantonese.

It was my first time to hear him speak in English. Common sense dictates that this was done for the benefit of those at the Mass, for except for two locals, all were foreigners like me.

In the past, meetings were non-denominational Christian congregations and, the makeshift religious room was, to say the least, full to every nook and cranny. How much bigger would the congregation be if all Christian believers were all allowed to attend?

In my opinion the lack of a proper, decent venue, large enough for the cardinal to hold Mass is the main reason why only baptised Catholics were invited this time round, with over stretched staff and security reasons dictating the maximum controllable crowd.

I would like to point out that the congregation is solely made up of maximum security inmates—lest we forget.

I am not surprised that just a few locals are Catholics. When I was still in the free world, I had many encounters with young people from Catholic families, but to my surprise, they did not have the remotest idea about their faith.

I found out that apparently the problem of the transmission of the faith to the young is due to the pursuit of material wealth, where parents are so busy that they cannot find the time to speak to them about religion, so their children have been brought up in ignorance of the faith.

Furthermore, let us not forget that a high percentage of Hong Kong inhabitants are from the mainland and a vast number of them came during the period of the Cultural Revolution, where religious faith was considered taboo and looked upon as irrational and superstitious.

Sad to say, the few locals who embraced the faith were baptised while in prison.

For Christian prisoners the pain of Christmas is being away from families and loved ones during the festive season. And for foreign inmates, their sense of isolation is heightened at this time of the year.

Knowing this situation well, the ever caring welfare officers made extra efforts and tried their utmost to meet the demands for IDD telephone calls to raise their morale on this occasion.

The queues for the telephone are always long and because of the limited telephone facilities, it is a bit of a minor miracle they were able to handle the situation and for all the requests to be met.

This is just one of the many instances where you find how efficient and highly trained the rank and file is in the performance of their assigned task.

Actually, religious services of all sorts are catering to the spiritual needs of inmates the whole year round, but Church services play an important part during Christmas in prison.

There are many good things to look forward to during the festive occasion. There are the carol concerts organised by different parish choirs that come to the prison to sing hymns for us.

The most anticipated part, the Mass, is celebrated by the cardinal for our Christmas blessing.

Then comes the festive mood enhanced by extra food on top of the regular prison fare, with a packet of assorted sweets given by charitable organisations.

Prior to the arrival of those organising the Mass, all the inmates invited from different sections are already in the room.

The general mood in the room is one of happiness and jubilation, Christmas greetings flew around among the inmates and staff as well. As if on cue, an abrupt silence ensued when the Catholic Church choir, composed of mainly women, began arriving, preceded by the cardinal and his ever present deacon aide and, surprisingly, by another foreign looking priest.

Once they were seated the usual formalities of introducing the celebrants by the deacon followed. The bishop of Hong Kong was introduced for the benefit of newcomers and we came to know that the accompanying priest came from the Vatican and his primary work is prison ministry.

As the Mass progressed, I found the atmosphere in the room really special and blessed. With good participation in the prayers and carols, inmates are noticeably on their best behaviour. The staff could simply be there or participate rather than just be part of the security.

Cardinal Tong wound up his Christmas message by extolling the virtues of being humble and meek of heart, espousing a religious sense among others.

Then the visiting priest from the Vatican took to the lectern and talked about his travels to different countries for his prison visits. He emphasised that he came to Hong Kong primarily to witness firsthand how the city’s inmates are doing.

He said that he observed something unique in us and described our facial expressions as radiant, happy and smiling, in a way that suggested contentment, despite being in prison.

It is an observation that reflects the value of being treated humanely by the prison authorities. We dispersed after our Christmas Mass knowing we were blessed, strengthened and uplifted in spirit.

A peaceful and blessed New Year to each and everyone.

 

λ Mario de los Reyes

 

                  Stanley Prison