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Hong Kong liturgy expert looks back on 20-year journey

Hong Kong

July 06 2009

For 20 years, Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai has guided Catholics in mainland China as well as Hong Kong on liturgy.

 Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai

Father Law currently chairs the Hong Kong Diocesan Liturgy Commission.

Things have changed greatly in the 20 years since he, Salesian Father Joseph Zen Ze-kiun (now cardinal and retired bishop of Hong Kong) and American Jesuit Father Edward Malatesta began teaching liturgy, Bible and philosophy at the Sheshan Regional Seminary outside Shanghai.

The Hong Kong diocesan priest counts Sept. 30, 1989, on which the seminary celebrated its first Chinese-language Mass, as a great milestone in his journey with the mainland Church.

After that "very good" start, Father Law says, the seminary held a Chinese Mass once a week, until eventually all Masses were celebrated in Chinese. The Second Vatican Council (1962-64) had allowed use of local languages for Mass instead of Latin, which for centuries had been the liturgical language of the Roman Catholic Church.

Gradually the Chinese Mass was introduced to all Shanghai parishes. Nowadays, according to Father Law, only a few parishes conduct Mass in Latin, once in the early morning for elderly parishioners.

Over the years, the liturgy expert has made use of new media technologies as they emerged.

Some priests in Hebei and Shanxi provinces did celebrate Chinese-language Masses before 1989, using books the Hong Kong and Taiwan Churches donated, but Father Law discovered the priests had not studied post-Vatican II liturgy.

"So we published explanatory materials with pictures to help them understand the spirit and meaning," he recalled.

With cooperation from the Church in Taiwan, Father Law then produced videotapes that showed a Chinese Mass and explained the meaning of each section in the context of post-Vatican II liturgy.

Today the liturgy commission maintains a website through which it offers blogs on liturgy and spirituality, and downloads including prayers and revised Sunday Mass books. Previously, such books had to be carried by hand, the chairman noted.

Despite the impact Father Law has made on the devotional life of Chinese Catholics, he describes himself as "only a teacher who introduced them to (post-Vatican II) liturgy" through mainland seminaries.

Some of his students, however, have obtained degrees in liturgy during the past decade and now carry on the task of teaching seminarians and promoting liturgical development.

Father Law was appointed to the Diocesan Liturgy Commission in 1985, after studying liturgy at the Pontifical University of St. Anselmo following his priestly ordination on June 30, 1979. He was given responsibility for teaching liturgy and helping to promote liturgical reform in mainland China.

Four years later he arrived in Sheshan at the invitation of Jesuit Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian of Shanghai.

Reforms initiated by Vatican Council II had yet to reach the mainland, due to China´s isolation and religious repression under the communists, who came to power in 1949.

Father Law and his two companions immediately began preparing for the Chinese Mass, giving lectures on liturgy, Church history and tradition, and Vatican Council II. Practically, they instructed seminarians in how to serve at the altar, and prepare the readings and hymns in Chinese, Father Law recalled.

He has also taught at mainland seminaries in Beijing, Jilin, Shenyang, Shijiazhuang, Taiyuan, Wuhan and Xi'an.

Around 1993, the liturgy commission launched a campaign through which Hong Kong parishes have sponsored at least 100,000 sets of Mass books that have been distributed to many mainland dioceses.

Besides "going in," the commission also serves those who "come out." After the government relaxed travel restrictions for mainland residents in 2003, the number of mainland priests and nuns the commission welcomed in Hong Kong, something it had been doing since the mid-1990s, increased sharply.

Father Law and his commission staff members have received more than 200 visitors during the past year alone. A typical one-week itinerary includes visits to diocesan organizations and churches along with presentations on all seven sacraments, and the priest said some of the visitors feel renewed in their vocation.

"Love does not harbor any intentions," Father Law remarked after three decades of dedicated service.