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Following Jesus Christ to become poor

Joseph Pearce; St Benedict Press, 2013.

Reviewed by Emilie Ng

ho lungRADICAL poverty became Jamaican priest Fr Richard Ho Lung’s doorway into a life of incredible suffering, but also made him “the happiest man on earth”.

The authorised biography of this “ghetto priest” and friend of the poor by English writer and Catholic convert Joseph Pearce is a must-read for anyone who still wonders why the Church’s “preferential option” is for the poor.

Through private interviews with Fr Ho Lung, several founding brothers, volunteers and lay associates, one-off and returning visitors, the priest’s closest friends and even non-Catholic missionaries, Pearce offers a deeply affecting insight into a man who ditched all the world’s luxuries to live with the poorest of the poor – and how he attracted more than 500 men to follow him.

I can count the number of times on both hands where I muffled deep, grieving tears, not simply streaming down from reading about the poor who are so horrendously mistreated by humanity, but by their deep affection for their friend.

This piece by a journalist who documented their observations of Fr Ho Lung begins the book’s 12th chapter, and it says it all: “Another mentally unstable youth passes by. He stares and grins regularly without cause. He comes right up close, almost kisses our faces. He is not the cleanest youth around. He then gently places his hand in Ho Lung’s, looks affectionately at his while Ho Lung returns the gesture, squeezing his hand affirmatively. ‘Father, I love you,’ says the boy”.

Fr Ho Lung, a former Buddhist, was ordained a Jesuit priest on July 4, 1971, but left the order officially in 1980, feeling the Society of Jesus had unfortunately “abandoned Jesus in order to embrace ‘society’”.

While the biography paints the portrait of a man whose deepest joy is found with the world’s outcast, the Jamaican slum-dwellers and many babies with embarrassing disabilities who turn up on his congregation’s doorstep maggot-infested, bashed, and begging to be noticed, fed and loved, it also dispels many theological inconsistencies, or judgements, on Fr Ho Lung’s approach to his outreach to the poor.

Pearce answers questions even he, who confesses to standing on the more conservative, “ad orientum”-toting side of Catholicism, seemed puzzled by.

Why does Fr Ho Lung approve of Caribbean-inspired rhythms or “liturgical dance” in Masses despite his staunch and orthodox “rebellion” of the Jesuits, the order with whom he was ordained a priest and whom he thought was becoming “too wordly”?

Pearce digs more deeply in encyclicals and Catholic theology masters, to find himself “mortified” by his initial judgements on the priest’s interesting liturgical preferences, saying he “finally understood” that his reaction to Caribbean Mass music was “a lack of respect for the poor”, a misunderstanding about how the Church can become, like Mother Teresa showed by wearing saris in India, “poor itself”.

But Fr Ho Lung’s way of helping the poor is in itself unorthodox – he writes musical numbers which are performed in local and international theatres by volunteers, the profits of which are all given to the poor.

But he also takes to secular media, demanding a stop to, and even asking members of parliament to resign, if action is taken on legalising abortion in Jamaica; promoting attacks on religious liberty against Catholic hierarchy causing “confusion” and “divisiveness”; unjust treatment of the sick in a hospice where there are “more rats than humans”; and others.

He challenges rich business leaders to give more to the “Lazaruses” sleeping in the gutters, saying government can never “claim the poor people as your own” because “as long as politics runs everything and pretends to run everything, we are in danger…”

All of these fights, persuasions and demands are nothing but a pure solidarity with the poor – but it is not merely words without actions.

Fr Ho Lung and his Missionaries of the Poor earn nothing financially, all being called to the usual three evangelical counsels of chastity, poverty and obedience, but also a fourth – free service to the least.

This free service is exactly as it says – that all Missionaries of the Poor and the later-founded women religious institute Missionaries of the Poor Sisters, offer the poor all services – medical, education, work experience and emotional counselling – “gratis” for Christ.

If there were anything that would inspire you to shake your love of comfort and mediocrity and give you a heart for the poor, Pearce’s biography on the man who followed Christ to be one with the poor is your ticket.

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