San Francisco Archbishop to Host Holy Hour for Hong Kong’s Jimmy Lai

On May 8, the heroic sacrifice of the imprisoned Chinese Catholic media magnate will be highlighted at a Holy Hour at the Archdiocese of San Francisco’s seminary.

In this picture taken on June 16, 2020, millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, poses during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong.
In this picture taken on June 16, 2020, millionaire media tycoon Jimmy Lai, 72, poses during an interview with AFP at the Next Digital offices in Hong Kong. (photo: Anthony Wallace / Getty)

Hong Kong entrepreneur, democracy activist and Catholic convert Jimmy Lai is currently imprisoned in solitary confinement for speaking out against the communist government.

“As an entrepreneur who arrived in Hong Kong penniless, Jimmy Lai was always an inherently interesting man,” The Wall Street Journal’s William McGurn told the Register. “But he became an inspiration by accepting a prison cell instead of fleeing to one of his homes abroad because he believed that was his obligation. It’s what we mean by picking up our cross. It is now clear this is Jimmy’s moment, his destiny.”

So, on May 8 at 5 p.m., McGurn will join Archbishop Salvatore Cordileone and the seminarians at St. Patrick’s Seminary in Menlo Park, California, for a special Holy Hour honoring the sacrifice of heroic Christians like Jimmy Lai. The prayer service will feature a newly commissioned Hymn for the Martyrs of Chinese Communism, followed by a lecture on “The Prison Witness of Jimmy Lai,” delivered by McGurn, who is Lai’s godfather. The schola for the Holy Hour will be led by Jennifer Donelson-Nowicka, director of the Catholic Institute of Sacred Music.

“The situation of Catholics is grim in China, and I’m afraid the Vatican’s secret deal a few years back has made it worse. But the people are tremendously faithful under very trying circumstances,” observed McGurn. “In San Francisco, you have a large Chinese community. I would like them to know the heroism of a fellow Chinese languishing in solitary confinement in Hong Kong and to pray for a better day.”

McGurn also noted that Lai is grateful for the support of those from the United States.

“I know from Jimmy Lai’s letters to me that he is so humbled to think people he does not know and will never meet are praying for him,” McGurn said. “Believe me, he draws strength from this.”

For Stephanie Siu, who is the patroness behind the newly commissioned Hymn for the Martyrs of Chinese Communism, the connection is visceral and personal. Siu dedicated the piece to her parents, who immigrated from Hong Kong before she was born. Tragically, some of her mother’s non-Catholic relatives in Hong Kong committed suicide.

“They were going to have all their property confiscated and their lives destroyed, and they didn’t know how to deal with it,” said Siu. “In some ways, they are the victims of totalitarianism and communism. We have martyrs from different countries, like the Korean martyrs, but when you look beyond nationalities, a lot of them are martyrs of communism; it has a common root.”

Frank La Rocca is the composer of the new hymn, which sets into music James Matthew Wilson’s poem Stanzas for the Chinese Martyrs.

La Rocca told the Register Wilson “came up with a remarkable poem that, in English, manages to parallel and evoke the approach of the Tang dynasty poetry.” His own task, he added, was musically capturing “certain sounds from Chinese folk music in just the way James Matthew Wilson has evoked classical Chinese poetry.”

For his part, Wilson, the director of Houston’s University of St. Thomas MFA program in creative writing, reflected on the writing of that poem as a spiritual experience:

“It sometimes seems that the world in which contemporary Catholics live has become much smaller and more complacent,” noted the Catholic poet, who is a participant in the Benedict XVI Institute’s “Martyrs of Communism” project. “The example of the martyrs is so compelling and convincing that, even in suffering, and especially in suffering, they had complete dedication to God. Holiness is possible. Every bit of the holiness of the apostles is as alive to us as it ever was.”

As the prelate of the city in America with the largest proportion of Chinese Americans and a vibrant Chinese Catholic community, Archbishop Cordileone told the Register he feels a special responsibility to call attention to both the suffering and the heroism of Chinese Catholics.

In a recent homily, Archbishop Cordileone quoted comments he received personally from Lai in a letter that the archbishop called “my most recent prized possession.”

“Mr. Lai chose to stay behind rather than flee to safety for the sake of the freedom of his people, or better yet, to be a living sign of their oppression,” Archbishop Cordileone said in his homily. “What a difference one’s perspective is who suffers severe oppression for the sake of integrity of conscience. All that is sacred is taken away: material possessions, contact with loved ones, comfort and conveniences, access to spiritual resources — especially confession and the Holy Eucharist — and most obviously the deprivation of freedom itself.”

“But for the spiritual person,” the archbishop added, “the perspective is different: Freedom is on the inside, and the greatest freedom of all no one can take away: the freedom that comes from integrity of conscience, no matter the cost.”

Emily Chaffins’ writing appears in the Florida Catholic, Catholic Exchange and Catholic Vote’s The Loop newsletter. She is the creator and curator of the Archdiocese of Miami’s Through the Catholic Lens, a blog about rediscovering art, media and entertainment through the Catholic worldview.

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