This past weekend I read Joseph Pearce’s Candles in the Dark: The Authorized Biography of Fr. Richard Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor, which had been sent to me for review by St. Benedict’s Press.
I had known very little about the work of Fr. Ho Lung before reading this book. Given my deep commitment to the Vincentian charism, I confess that the first person who came to mind as I read about Fr. Ho Lung was St. Vincent de Paul, whose commitment to serving the needs of the poor and seeing Christ in the faces of the poor seems very much in evidence here.
While there are certainly matters on which Fr. Ho Lung and I would not be in agreement (he seems to bemoan women in the workplace), there are many inspring things about him presented in this biography. First and foremost, he is a model of “love as self-sacrificial giving of oneself to the Other.” He seems to seek nothing for himself and everything for the sake of those to whom he ministers. At the same time, like Vincent, he understood 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,” although they do that also, “but by the desire to serve Jesus in His presence among them.” And he has attracted large numbers to minister with him; his Missionaries of the Poor now have more than 500 brothers serving in various places around the world.
Second, his combining prayer and action is something that comes through clearly. His call was to social justice but at the same time, a call to a serious prayer life and deeper spirituality. As someone with an Ignatian spirituality, I was struck by the description of his referring to figures such as Merton and Hopkins, “not as an intellectual or academic exercise. No, he gave them flesh, made them live, so as to enliven a passage of scripture or a point for meditation.”
Third, Fr. Ho Lung is presented as someone who had a sense of humor. He was serious about his faith, but knew how to have a good time. Not only in his music – although that is a not insignificant part of his story (the “Reggae Priest” received many awards for his music), but other times he could be extremely playful. Many people could benefit form the reminder that being a good Christian does not mean walking around somber all of the time.
One of the things that struck me particularly was Fr. Ho Lung’s response to the question whether he feared for his life. It was a legitimate question given his willingness to take public (and confrontational) stands on issues of social justice and to be direct in fighting the drug rings in his locale. His response to the question was, “Oh no! I have to die for something.” There is something very powerful for me in that response. We all have to die, after all. But better to die for something that matters than not. I’m not saying his response gives me a desire to affirmatively purse martyrdom, but it does, I think, help provide strength to fight even when doing so carries a cost.
Two things minimized my appreciation of the book, which may be related. First, there are a number of points at which the author has a very defensive tone in talking about different aspects of Fr. Ho Lung and/or his ministry, as though he needs to defend him against attack against his orthodoxy or fidelity to the Magisterium. Yet I see no indication of any need for such defensiveness, no indication anyone has seriously challenged his fidelity. Amusingly, the defense of the connection between Fr. Ho Lung’s orthodoxy and the vernacular style of his music seems to be in response to the author’s own misgivings rather than anyone else’s.
Second, the author’s own biases come through strongly and I think his recounting of the life and work of Fr. Ho Lung would have been more effective without the distraction of those biases. One could, for example, explain Fr. Ho Lung’s decision to leave the Jesuits and form is own order without painting the entire population of Jesuits as modernists who have lost a focus on Christ. One could explain Fr. Ho Lung’s approach to his ministry without wholesale degradation of liberation theology. (And in this context, I found the author’s treatment of the Catholic Social Principle of solidarity to be woefully incomplete.) One could applaud the way Christianity has taken route in some of the places in which Fr. Ho Lung ministered without dismissing “the West” as having disintegrated “into deconstructed particles, devoid of faith or reason and lusting after nihilism of the culture of death.” Many of us do not share the author’s views on these or any number of other matters, and those who don’t may very well be turned off by his tone.