Hong Kong (AsiaNews) - In the big, cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong, Christmas "is one of the most important moments of apostolate for us Catholics. For most residents, it is a Western celebration, but a few are aware that it is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.
Every year, Catholics and friends of Catholics send greetings to the priest of their own neighbourhood. "I posted a notice in my parish," Fr Luigi said. "It said: 'If you want to send greetings, do it at least with a religious sign.' This way, people have to look for religious postcards in stores, and somehow are exposed to the faith. It is a form of evangelisation: an apostolate that works."
With such a "trick," Fr Luigi Bonalumi, missionary at the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME), transforms Advent in a moment of true fellowship with religion. Parish priest at the church dedicated to the Immaculate Heart of Mary in the New Territories, he spoke to AsiaNews about Christmas preparations in his parish and in Hong Kong.
"There are lights everywhere at this time: illuminations in the shape of Santa Claus and little trees. People write 'Merry Christmas' in the streets, but no one knows what it means. The religious aspect is totally missing. This is why even such an important festivity can turn into an ordinary thing. This is why my community and I try to turn it into true apostolate."
In fact, in the weeks that precede Christmas, Fr Luigi's parish gears up for charity work. "We visit hospices for seniors, and there are many of them, to bring gifts," he said. "It is obvious that we prepare them for all residents, Catholics and non-Catholics."
"Then we go to the local hospital to offer our best wishes. Children attending catechism prepared small painted postcards with best wishes for each patient and senior: small gifts prepared during Sunday school, about a thousand postcards, hand-painted with handwritten best wishes".
In addition to the volunteer work, there is also time for more joyful moments. "Christmas carols are one of the most popular activities. In addition to street corners, churches and houses, we go to the railway stations on the Hong Kong-Guangzhou line. With members of local parishes, we sing on the tracks at various stations. People going and coming from work stop to listen and when they leave some have a smile on their face."
Inside the church, people prepare the Christmas Novena. "Every evening we recite the Vespers and perform the various liturgies of the day. We try to give as much access as possible to the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and the Eucharist, of course. We spend a lot of time in worship so that the coming of Christmas will find us prepared all together."
Midnight Mass "will be full house, as always. Both the English-speaking community, composed mostly of Filipino immigrants and other English-speaking foreigners, and the Chinese community participate in the Mass celebration of the birth of Jesus. There are three masses: one at the central church, and two in local schools. Usually, the church is full with people lining up outside because not everyone can get in."
Fr Luigi's parish has about 10,000 members. "People are very mobile here in Hong Kong. On average, some 3,000 people come divided among the eight Masses on Saturdays and Sundays, in English and Chinese."
The crèche at the entrance of the church as well as the Christmas tree are the handiwork of children attending catechism.
"On the branches, some of the kids placed a tiny yellow umbrella, which symbolises the Occupy Central," the pro-democracy movement that led protests for more than two months on the streets of Hong Kong, demanding freedom and democracy from Beijing.
"This is something strongly felt in the local church, which now has to ponder how to answer unanswered questions from young people. Even from this point of view, we hope and pray that Christmas will bring a real reason for hope."
The end of the holiday season, Epiphany, will bring great hope. "On that day, like almost all Hong Kong parishes, we will celebrate the rite of enrolment of new catechumens, who began their catechumenate about three months ago."
"In my parish, about 90 people, all adults, joined this year. They are generally couples, but there are also some senior citizens and young people. If catechism goes well, they will be baptised at Easter 2016".
The main reason behind the conversion of adults in Hong Kong "is the collapse of the old values. The charm of what some call 'modern life' is declining, as evidenced by the Occupy movement itself."
"Those who come to the catechumenate usually take this decision after years of reflection and consideration. They are in their thirties and forties, when their life has already taken shape. They have a life and a job, but they understand that that is not enough. They look for strong values and a community in which to raise their children. They turn to the church, hoping that their children will join a community that teaches them what they fail to pass on."
In conclusion, an optimistic Fr Luigi knows that, "as always, it is hard to take stock of the year that is coming to an end. However, we can say that the desire for an authentic Christian life is increasing, and that Christmas is the best time to realise it."