JOSEPH TAN LEI TAO, SVD MISSIONARY – Love is still the only language that everybody knows

– Marco Carvalho

The recording of a musical based on the life and spiritual legacy of the first saint that has developed pastoral work in Hong Kong will be screened again on November 9th, after a recent first screening at the Cinematheque Passion. O Clarim spoke with the producer of St Joseph Freinademetz – The First Saint who Ever Serve in Hong Kong. A missionary of the Society of the Divine Word, Father Joseph Tan Lei Tao believes that love still is the only truly universal language.

It is not very usual to have a musical about a saint. Where did you get this idea from? Saint Joseph Freinademetz is a very special figure in Hong Kong. He is the first saint to have ever served there. Why a musical?

When I was a diocesan seminarian, I met a German priest from the Society of the Divine Word. This priest gave me a very simple book, entitled A Pioneer for the Kingdom of God. It was a simple biography of Joseph Freinademetz. This book, in a certain sense, is at the heart of the show. Joseph Freinademetz was a great missionary:  he loved his mission, he loved the people he served and he was willing to die for the people he was serving. His life had a very deep impact on me: “What is this power? What kind of powerful spirituality pushed him to leave his home, to come to China and even die for China?” I felt touched. Saint Joseph Freinademetz is the reason why I joined the Society of the Divine Word.

Is that so? So he was a role model for you…

Yes. I was a diocesan priest in the northern part of China. After I joined the Society, my only desire was to become a missionary like him. I studied in Australia and then I became a missionary in the Philippines and then in Hong Kong, the place where he worked for two years. In Hong Kong, I took charge of the only Mandarin-speaking group of Catholics and I named it “Saint Joseph Freinademetz Mandarin Community.” Every year we celebrated the anniversary of our patron saint. This celebration wouldn’t amount to anything very special: we would gather, share a meal and pray and celebrate together. After four years, in our fifth year, we thought that we should do something different, instead of eating and praying. We could maybe recite some poems, tell some stories, rehearse a play or write some songs. Before that, before this idea came to be, I used to compose a few hymns for the Church. We were convinced that we could write some songs and take them to the stage. It could be a beautiful way to tell the story of Saint Joseph Freinademetz. Many people would ask me: “Who is he? What did he do? How did he live his life?”

Do you think that the people in Hong Kong are aware that a saint worked there? How well known is Saint Joseph Freinademetz in Hong Kong?

Actually, there were many that didn’t have the slightest idea. That was one of the reasons we decided to make this musical. The priest in charge of the parish where we were meeting was very encouraging and our original plan was to produce not one, but two shows: one in the afternoon and the other one in the evening. Later, the parish priest told us that we wouldn’t be able to do both shows, that we could only do the evening one. We had prepared everything twice. We even had different casts to do the two different shows.  We were disappointed that we couldn’t use the space after we worked so much, but then someone suggested that we should look for spaces outside, spaces not related to the parish. We spent a few days looking for a solution and finally we found the Chai Wan Multicultural Center, a space that belonged to the Government. It was a totally different environment and we felt compelled to improve on some of the aspects we had possibly neglected. We started looking for people that could help us with the lighting, with the sound. More people started joining us and we felt the need to work harder, so we could make the show better and bigger.

This is by all means a big production. There were more than one hundred people involved in this musical. How did you manage to convince so many people to join this project?

I would say this effort succeeded because it was based in our community members. That’s the first aspect. The second was our acceptance of change. When the difficulties started to appear and the problems to arise, we started to look for help. Some of the people whom we asked for help, we didn’t know them before, but they joined in. We started to look in different communities. For instance, the children who sing the German songs, they don’t belong to our community. They sing in a choir, but they joined in. The same happened with some of the guitar players. Whenever we had a problem, we decided to look for help. Actually, I think that all these people helped to make the show better and better. One of the most admirable things is the fact that, even in the most difficult times, almost no one dropped out, almost no one gave up on the project.

The project soon became bigger than Hong Kong. It has already been translated in almost twenty languages. Is this a good way to promote the life and legacy of Saint Joseph Freinademetz? He was ready to die for China and he died in China. Can he be the apostle that China needs nowadays?

There are two different dimensions in your question. The reason why we decided to translate the musical in so many languages was because Saint Joseph Freinademetz himself spoke a lot of languages. In his hometown, most of the people spoke Latin. He learned Italian when he was in the seminary. Then he went to Holland and there he learned to say the basic things in Dutch. Before he came to Hong Kong, he prepared himself by learning the language with a missionary of the Sacred Heart that had been working in China. He met this missionary in the Netherlands and he told him that he was preparing himself to work in China. That missionary had been in Mongolia and he spoke the Hebei dialect. That was the dialect that he learned, but when he arrived in Hong Kong he understood that dialect was useless. Once in Hong Kong, he learned Cantonese and Hakka. After he learned these languages, he went to China and he had to learn everything once again, because none of these languages were spoken in Shandong, so he had to learn the Shandong dialect. You can have an idea about how strong was his missionary spirit. He was ready to learn everything he could so his mission could be well succeeded. When someone suggested that we should translate the musical to several different languages, we felt this was a really amazing idea. The members of the Society are multicultural. They come from more than sixty countries and they serve in more than seventy. All these languages are useful. This was the reason why we decided to translate it to several different languages and give it to the SVD, so that the Society can use it in mission.

The second question that I had was about the importance of Saint Joseph Freinadmetz for the Church and the Catholics in China…

In China we have 120 saints. But these 120 saints are martyrs. Saint Joseph Freidnametz is the only saint in China, Macau, Hong Kong and Taiwan who was canonized because of his spirituality. Love, he used to say, is the only language everybody knows. This aspect is one of the reasons why he is special. Joseph Freinadmetz left his hometown, in then Austria-Hungary, prepared himself to be a missionary in the Netherlands, came to Hong Kong, did most of his missionary work in the province of Shandong and he learned a lot of languages, but he was convinced that the only universal language was love. He left Europe, he came to China and ever since the beginning he felt the need to mingle with the Chinese people and the Chinese culture. That’s how a great missionary should work. Many people who left their own culture felt the need to rebuild their home culture in their mission territory, but Joseph Frienademetz rarely joined those who kept their own culture alive in the places where he served. He learned the language very well. He was not only able to talk and to write in Chinese, but also to preach in Chinese. He devoted himself to cross the limits of his own culture and that’s why he used to say that he didn’t want to be only a missionary among the Chinese. Even in heaven, he wanted to be a Chinese missionary. Another important aspect of his legacy, was the depth of his conviction, the effort he made to cross his own cultural limits. I would say that his identity and legacy still are very meaningful both for Hong Kong and Mainland China. There were many European missionaries already working in China when he came, but there was something particular about his mission: the pope sent him. Before he left, he went to Rome to see the Pope and it was the Pope that defined his mission. I would say that China could use that kind of spirituality today, that kind of love, that kind of capacity to cross cultures. Both Mainland China and Hong Kong need to be reminded of values such as respect, love and the ability to understand different cultures. I believe these values are very meaningful.

The idea that love is the only language that everybody understands it is still a good teaching today?

Yes. It was a good teaching 140 years ago and it is still a good teaching today. It still is useful, still is meaningful and still is helpful. Even after 140 years, love is still the only language that everybody knows. It was this message that made him special. It crossed time and space and remains as valid as it has always been.

You will bring this project once again to Macau in November. How important is to spread Saint Joseph Freinadmetz message to this side of the Pearl River Delta?

The Hong Kong Diocese was born out of the Diocese of Macau. Macau was the place where all the missionaries departed to go to China and to go to Hong Kong. There are lots of people that had never heard about Joseph Freinadmetz in Hong Kong. If there not many have heard about him, in Macau is even worse. I am sure not many people know about him and about his missionary work. The good thing about this musical is that it offered many people the opportunity to get to know him. I would say that because of Joseph Freinadmetz a lot of people left Europe and came to China one hundred years ago. More than 500 missionaries joined the mission in China because of his influence. Nowadays, there are a lot of laymen that come to us with a sense of mission. I have been organizing in the last few years in Hong Kong a Mandarin language study of the Bible. At the same time, I try to convey the values that should direct and underline the mission practices. Every year I organize one such course. Many people started to go back to their own parishes, started to serve with a sense of mission. They don’t limit their faith to attending Mass. I hope that in Macau, through Saint Joseph Freinadmetz example, more people can be touched by this sense of mission. If they have it in their hearts, lay missionaries can go back to their own parishes and, more than being simple Mass-goers, they can become servants of the mission.

Do you think that the future of evangelization in China could be that one? Laymen evangelizing instead of priests?

I would say it will happen not only in Mainland China. In Hong Kong, in Macau and in Taiwan it will happen as well. Today in Mainland China, in the southern part of China, there are fewer priests available. But there are many businessmen. Some of these businessmen, they live in other cities. Because the priests have no time, there is no chance to celebrate Mass, to preach. What do they do? Layman will prepare Mass and they receive the sacraments from the priest every Sunday. In each city they have a Eucharistic celebration, but only a part of them are celebrated by priests. The lay people do the readings, they even prepare the homily. The only difference is that they don’t get the Holy Communion to offer the people. In the southern part of China this is quite popular. In Hong Kong, there are a lot of lay missionaries. Some of them even left Hong Kong so they can be missionaries in different countries. I know a lot of them. In Macau, I have no idea. I don’t know much about Macau. I don’t know much about Taiwan either.

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