Summer in Jilin

I know I haven’t exactly done a good job of keeping this updated. I’ve been back in Rome for over a week now, and China is slowly fading from the forefront of my mind. My only excuse is that helping with New Man Orientation here at PNAC–which deserves a post in itself–has kept me busy. But the new men started their Italian classes yesterday, which has given this ‘old man’ a little extra time to get settled in and start marking things off the to-do list. So, as promised in a previous post, here’s a general outline of what life was like during my teaching apostolate in Jilin.

Teaching

I spent three weeks teaching English at Jilin Medical College, in Jilin City. Obviously, it wasn’t a beginner English class; the students had to pass a proficiency test to be able to participate, so their English was pretty good already. We used op-ed pieces from the English version of the government-owned China Daily to build vocabulary and serve as a starting point for discussions.

The program was broken up into five 50-minute sessions. The first was a plenary session in the large lecture hall, in which one of the teachers (usually our supervisor, though occasionally one of the other teachers would take a turn) would present new vocabulary and read the day’s article aloud. Then we would break into small groups, which rotated every two days in order for the students to spend some time in class with each of the teachers. Once in small groups, we spent one session each on vocabulary/pronunciation, discussion of the article, dictation, and ‘free talk,’ with a two-hour break for lunch.

We were explicitly instructed by Public Security officials not to teach religion in class, which is reasonable enough given the nature of the program. However, some of the articles we used dealt with various ethical issues or topics such as marriage, so when discussing these my contributions were naturally informed by Catholic teaching. The students were clearly curious about the Faith, as was evident by their questions both during free talk and outside of class. For many of them, this was their first exposure to Christianity.

Living Arrangements

The teachers, fittingly, lived in the ‘teachers apartments,’ which were four-storied, Soviet style, brick-and-concrete buildings that once served as military housing. (The college used to be the Air Force Medical College.) The three NACers lived in one apartment, and our supervisor, Fr. Brian, lived next door. All the teachers, and usually a handful of students, had meals at our apartment, while Fr. Brian’s apartment was reserved for prayer.

Cuisine

With a few notable exceptions, our diet in Jilin was pretty simple: rice, dumplings, and various chicken/pork/tofu and vegetable combinations. Eating with chopsticks all the time took a little getting used to, but my years of occasionally eating American Chinese food prepared me well enough not to be openly ridiculed by the locals. (The same cannot be said for all the teachers.)

I tried to take advantage of the opportunities I was given to experience certain types of food that aren’t available in the West. I had jellyfish in Hong Kong, and dog in Jilin. I also had duck blood curd, though that wasn’t on purpose. Some of the other guys went out for fried scorpion in Beijing, but they didn’t recommend it, so I didn’t make a point of going out and finding some for myself. I did, however, try dried squid (which is sold as a snack food in China), prawn-flavored potato chips, and steak-flavored Cheetos–none of which, to my knowledge, are common in the States.

Some students took a few of us out one day for ‘hot pot,’ which is a very popular type of meal in the north of China. We gathered around a table, in the center of which a shallow pot of boiling water was  situated on an electric stove. The waiter proceeded to bring in platters of raw meat and vegetables, which we then put in the boiling water for a few minutes to cook before eating directly from the pot. That may have been my favorite meal of the whole trip.

Chinese Lessons

I took Chinese lessons for one hour each afternoon while in Jilin. I did not know any Chinese before this summer, so it was only a simple introduction. I’ve already forgotten most of what I learned, though now I have the resources to do some independent study. There’s a children’s cartoon I was encouraged to watch to help me learn the language, called Xi Yangyang (literally ‘Happy Sheep’–who says the Chinese government has no sense of humor!) I’d like to keep working on it; we’ll see if I can make it happen.

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Trip Update: Back from China

[I’ll be blogging from Asia for the rest of the summer, as I teach English and learn about the Church’s missionary efforts here. For more information, see my previous post detailing my summer plans.]

Actually, I’ve been back in Hong Kong for almost a week now. Our teaching program was a success. I had some great students, and I learned a lot! I’ll have plenty more to say about all that in future posts, but for the moment I’ll just give a brief update on my travels.

Beijing Trip

We arrived in Jilin about five days before the teaching program was to start so that we could spend a few days in Beijing. We visited Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City on the first day, and had a nice meal in the evening.

On the second day we took a tour of the Great Wall and the Ming Tombs. That was an experience! The tour was fairly inexpensive because, as we soon found out, it was subsidized by the Chinese Government, and so it also included tours of various government-owned “cultural” endeavors (read: tourist traps). So we were subjected to tours of a jade factory (which immediately became a punchline for our group), an enamel factory, and a teahouse, where I bought some over-priced Chinese tea. But we got to climb the Great Wall, so the day was a success. The only problem was that it was so hazy from all the pollution that we couldn’t see more than one or two sections of the wall in either direction.

On the third and final full day of our trip, we went to see the Temple of Heaven in the morning. Then the rain came. You may have read about it in the news. There was some pretty serious flooding, and a number of people died because of it. Fortunately, our group got back to the hotel safely, if soaked. That was the end of our adventurousness. We left the following morning to return to Jilin.

Jilin

I spent the bulk of my time in China in Jilin City, where I taught English to about 150 students at the Medical College, most of them English Nursing majors. I’ll have more to say about my experiences there in future posts. In the mean time, here are some pictures from the farewell dinner we had before our departure.

Philippines/Singapore Trip Cancelled

Towards the end of our time teaching in Jilin, we got word that Manila was flooded and badly damaged after a recent typhoon, so we decided to forgo that leg of the trip. That also meant cancelling our trip to Singapore, since our flight there was out of Manila. Oh well, no big loss (besides the non-refundable airfare). It turned out to be a blessing, as it has given us more time in Hong Kong.

Day Trip to Macau

On Tuesday we took a ferry from Hong Kong to Macau, where we met up with a classmate of ours at the Gregorian. He commissioned a very generous local Serra Club member to drive us around the city to see various churches and casinos. The first thing we saw was the historic façade of St. Paul’s “Without the Walls,” followed by a few other churches, including one at the top of Penha Hill overlooking the city. After a nice lunch at a dim sum restaurant, we briefly visited a few of the bigger casinos before stopping by the seminary. After meeting the Rector and getting the grand tour of the seminary, we made our way over to the Cathedral for evening Mass (in Portuguese). Before Mass started, however, our guide took us to the Chancery next door and introduced us to the Bishop of Macau! After Mass we walked around the historic town center, where we saw the first Western-style hospital in all of Asia, among other things. We had a quick dinner, and then we headed back to the ferry terminal for the trip back to Hong Kong.

Back to Rome

Our flight is scheduled to depart Hong Kong on Friday at 11:30 PM. However, it looks like a typhoon is headed this way, so it remains to be seen whether or not we will be delayed in our return to Rome. Not that I would mind staying here a few extra days…

A Word of Gratitude

Of course, I owe a great debt of gratitude to many people for making all of this possible: first to my bishop, Most Rev. Kevin J. Farrell, and the people of the Diocese of Dallas for sending me to do missionary work in China; to the Maryknoll Society for graciously hosting me in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Hong Kong; to my friend and classmate, Cyril, and to Mr. Kuan, the Serran who helped me see more of Macau in one afternoon than I could have seen in a week if left to my own devices; and to my students in Jilin, whose thoughtfulness and attentiveness in class (as well as generosity in showing me around the city and taking me out to meals) made me feel most welcome. God is good!

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Trip Update: Japan

[I’ll be blogging from Asia for the rest of the summer, as I teach English and learn about the Church’s missionary efforts here. For more information, see my previous post detailing my summer plans.]

I depart for mainland China in a few hours to begin my teaching apostolate, but I’ll just give a quick update on the trip so far before I leave.

I spent a few days in Japan last week: Tokyo for one full day, and then Kyoto for two days. We took a walking tour of Tokyo, visiting a Buddhist temple, a Shinto shrine, and what I think is considered the world’s largest electronics store (though I could be mistaken). In Kyoto, we took a bus tour of the city, so we were able to see quite a bit more: Nijo Castle, the old Imperial Palace, the so-called “Golden Pavilion”, and a handful of temples and shrines.

One of the temples we visited on a mountain outside Kyoto

Just a few quick observations:

  • The Japanese are very cordial. I was surprised to see that they bow to one another (and even to foreigners like me!) at every encounter. Our guide told us–and I subsequently witnessed this–that when shops open in the morning, the staff is at the door bowing to customers who come in.
  • Our guide told us that China and Japan, though trying to meet the same challenge of accommodating a large number of people in a small space, basically take opposite approaches. The Japanese try to be as self-contained as possible and are careful to avoid being a nuisance to others, while the Chinese approach is to go about their business freely and not be bothered by others who do the same.
  • I and the others in my group observed more than once that we felt like we were in a video game, which makes sense, since Kyoto is the home of Nintendo.

I’ve also got some observations on religion in Japan and the state of the Church there, but it looks like those will have to wait until another day. In the mean time, please pray for my group’s safe travels to the mainland.

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Trip Update: Arrival in Hong Kong

[I’ll be blogging from Asia for the rest of the summer, as I teach English and learn about the Church’s missionary efforts here. For more information, see my previous post detailing my summer plans.]

My group arrived safely in Hong Kong yesterday morning after about 27 hours in transit from PNAC to the Maryknoll house here. Part of that was a nine-hour layover in Frankfurt, where we took a train into the city for Mass and lunch.

The view from my balcony in Hong Kong

The long-haul flight was uneventful. Our contact here at Maryknoll met us exactly where he said he would, and showed us how to get to the house using the top-notch public transportation system. Upon arriving in my room, I found I have a balcony and a view!

Actually, as nice as it looks, the view is way more spectacular than that. Which brings me to my next point: I bought a digital camera today that will hopefully be more capable of taking impressive photographs than the very simple one I’ve been using. Nothing too fancy, just about the most basic Canon DSLR on the market, though I did get a wide-angle lens to capture the beauty of some of the landscapes over here. I don’t expect to have access to an SD card reader until October, but eventually I’ll try to post more pictures either here or maybe on Flickr.

On another note, I tried Vegemite today for the first time! I haven’t really made up my mind whether I like it or not, but I figure it’s a blog-worthy milestone nonetheless.

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What Waterskiing can teach us about the Virtuous Life

When I was growing up, skiers dominated the lake where I spent my summers. These days, however, I find the lake of my boyhood increasingly littered with people riding inner tubes. I find this notable because it takes skill to ski, while inner tubing requires no such skill. Learning to ski was once a rite of passage, but now it seems that many are bypassing the opportunity to learn a legitimate water-sport in favor of the instant gratification of participating in a mediocre substitute.

I present this degradation—and having experienced both activities, I can say with confidence that it is a degradation—as a microcosm of the decline in virtues in our society. In both we see that discipline is forsaken in exchange for instant gratification. The training necessary before one can enjoy the pursuit of excellence in skiing mirrors the initial discipline needed to begin a life of virtue. And just as any skill begins to come naturally once it is acquired, so the virtues grow gradually easier the more they are lived.

Inner-tubing, by contrast, requires little to no skill, and the same goes for hedonism. The trend these days seems to be pointing away from the pursuit of excellence, towards the wanton pursuit of fleeting pleasure, not because hedonism yields greater happiness than the virtuous life, but because it is easier and faster. In fact, the virtues help us to become truly human, in a way that hedonism cannot. And only by moving in the direction of our telos—that is, being truly human—can we experience anything more than merely animal pleasure.

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“Time” and Eternity

The Angelus bells were ringing a few days ago as I walked to Mass, and I couldn’t help but think of the lyrics to Pink Floyd’s “Time.”

Far away, across the field,
Tolling on the iron bell
Calls the faithful to their knees
To hear the softly spoken magic spells.

(I don’t think I’d call the Mass “magic spells,” but the rhyming works, so I’ll forgive them.)

The song itself is a lamentation over a life wasted. The band employs the beautifully tragic imagery of a man chasing the sunset, only to find that his efforts are in vain. The most obvious rhetoric of the piece is that we ought to make the most of life.

However, a subtler message of the piece is this: the man in the song hears the church bells, but he is far away. Though some part of him may want to be reconciled with God, he feels that he is so far removed (likely through his own doing) that he has no hope. Rather than renouncing his flaws, he embraces them, and resigns himself to “The Great Gig in the Sky.”

But this afterlife is not the Christian conception of Heaven. Rather, I suspect that the dark side of the moon represents an afterlife much more akin to the one we see in Homer’s Odyssey, populated by empty and regretful shades. It is a place (metaphorically speaking) without light, which symbolizes God’s grace.

In the final song of the album, “Eclipse,” we hear that “the sun is eclipsed by the moon.” The empty afterlife represented by the dark side of the moon separates our transient life on earth from the constant and eternal, which is the sun. The song ends with the nearly inaudible line, “There is no dark side of the moon, really. As a matter of fact, it’s all dark.” In other words, there is no afterlife in communion with God. It is all dark.

Yes, I’d say “Time” carries the central theme of the album, which is that we ought to enjoy every minute of this life, because there is no real life after life. The Dark Side of the Moon is one of my favorite albums, but it seems to me that its message is nihilism.

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Preparing a Culture to Receive the Gospel

Evangelization requires preparation: not just on the part of the evangelist, but also on the part of those who are to be evangelized. We see this fairly plainly in the Parable of the Sower (Mt. 13:3-8,18-23). If the soil of Western culture is not ready to receive the Gospel, much of our effort will likely be in vain. Therefore it seems to me that one of the principal objectives of the New Evangelization will be to foster an environment in which the message of the Gospel can take root and thrive.

Lumen Gentium 16 states that “Whatever good or truth is found amongst [people who have not received the Gospel] is looked upon by the Church as a preparation for the Gospel.” (I think the same probably holds true for those who are nominally Christian but who have not yet taken the Gospel message to heart.) So we don’t have to reject the current culture wholesale and start from scratch. Rather, the Church “fosters and takes to itself, insofar as they are good, the ability, riches and customs in which the genius of each people expresses itself. Taking them to itself, it purifies, strengthens, elevates and ennobles them” (LG 13). It seems to me that the first two tasks–those of purifying and strengthening the culture–ought to be done concurrently as a preparation for re-evangelization, which will then yield fruit that elevates and ennobles the culture.

There is much in our culture that hinders the Gospel from taking root in our life, by both denial and distraction. Rather than going into specifics here, I’ll merely pose the question: to what extent does our Christian faith inform our daily life? Purifying one’s own life is a sine qua non of purifying the culture.

The second task–that of strengthening the good elements in our culture–is to be achieved through similar means. Faithfully living one’s vocation in accord with sound Christian teaching, whether as parent, leader, artist, journalist, educator–the list goes on and on–affirms what is best in our society, and prepares others to receive the Gospel, giving them an alternative to the empty materialism and relativism of our age.

The point here is that the best way to prepare the culture for the New Evangelization is to strive to live authentically Christian lives–from the way we vote and how we live our vocation, to the entertainment we consume and how we interact with our neighbors–so that our witness may change the hearts and minds of others, and make them more receptive to the Gospel.

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The Villa Agrippina

Every day on my way to class I pass the front gate of a luxury resort hotel on the Janiculum hill, called the Villa Agrippina. It looks like a very nice (if expensive) place for family and friends to stay, as it is just a few steps from the College.

For those who can recognize it, the name is evocative of all the opulence of the Empire at its height: Agrippina the Younger was the fourth wife of the Emperor Claudius (r. 41-54 AD), and the mother of the Emperor Nero by a previous marriage. It is said that she poisoned Claudius’ mushrooms in order for her son to ascend the throne.

Nero, of course, would later go on to initiate the first major persecution of Christians, whom he blamed for starting a great fire in the city that (conveniently for him) burned down entire neighborhoods that stood in the way of a new palace he had plans to build for himself. It was during the course of this persecution that St. Peter was martyred in the Circus Vaticanus, the site on which St. Peter’s Basilica now stands.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that the Villa Agrippina is probably a nice place to stay, but it may be best to eat elsewhere.

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Vulgate on iTunes–for Free!

My Latin is not that good. There, I said it. Despite the fact that my three semesters of Latin at UD are enough to exempt me from having to take any more of it here in Rome (at least for the STB), I am not at all satisfied with my rudimentary grasp of the language. However, I may have found a painless way to remedy that.

Last night as I meandered across the internet, I came across an audio version of the entire New Testament in Latin, which I of course then proceeded to download. It comes from a project called Faith Comes By Hearing, which currently has audio recordings of Holy Scripture available in 648 different languages, and is aimed primarily at spreading the Gospel to the illiterate in remote areas of the world. You can find it in Latin by searching for ‘neo vulgate’ in iTunes.

(Don’t worry that it’s not an explicitly Catholic undertaking. The text they use for the Latin, at least, is the official text of the Catholic Church. And they even use the Vatican pronunciation!)

I’ve understood most of what I’ve heard so far, if only because I’m fairly familiar with the Gospels. We’ll see how I do when I get to Titus and Philemon.

Whether or not this will actually help with my Latin, I can only hope. But regardless, it’s probably better for my soul (and my sanity) than listening to Pink Floyd and Irish drinking songs all day!

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A Very Brief History of the English Reformation in the 16th Century

I recently finished reading Evelyn Waugh’s biography of St. Edmund Campion, an Oxford scholar-turned-Jesuit priest who was martyred under Queen Elizabeth I.

I find the history of the English Reformation fascinating, in part because England was not at all a likely place to succumb to protestantism. Much has been made of the anti-clericalism of the time, due in large part to the moral failings of priests. But, according to Hilaire Belloc, the English clergy were by no means the biggest offenders, and were in fact among the healthiest in all of Christendom in this regard. England had been historically a very Catholic realm. Henry VIII, in fact, before the annulment debacle, had been named Defender of the Faith for penning a pamphlet (though it was likely ghost-written by Thomas More) against the heresies of Martin Luther. His love for the Apostolic Faith is evident, and even after his split from the Roman Church–due to the very human desire to produce a legitimate male heir and so avoid another succession crisis–he never intended to do away with the Sacraments.

There was a period when the Church in England could easily have been reconciled with Rome: after the death of Queen Catherine and the birth of Edward to Henry’s new wife, Jane Seymour. It is my understanding that Henry was not terribly opposed to a reconciliation, but by then there was a new class of English gentry who had so benefited from the Crown’s dissolution of the monasteries–of which the proceeds were used to pay off royal debt and buy political favors–that they now did everything in their power to prevent their restoration, which would undoubtedly have followed a reunion with Rome. At the same time, Calvinism was beginning to take hold amongst the merchant class in London, for whom the new doctrines were appealing in their lack of emphasis on good works and appreciation for spiritual poverty. This proved another obstacle to reconciliation.

Henry, either in his distractions on other matters (his subsequent marriages to protestant sympathizers and his failed foreign military expeditions) or just his lack of resolve in his later years, made little attempt to ameliorate the situation. Nor did his successor, Edward, who was educated by protestants in his youth and advised (or, rather, controlled) by them during his brief reign.

Edward’s elder sister, Mary, daughter of Henry and Catherine of Aragon, and granddaughter of Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain, attempted to restore the Apostolic Faith in England, but her reign was too short and her power too limited to root out the animosity toward Catholicism that had then become part of the establishment. (For this she was given the nickname “Bloody Mary,” even though the persecution of Catholics under her younger sister, Elizabeth, was far bloodier.)

Actually, from the accounts I have read, Elizabeth was not an ideologue bitterly opposed to Catholicism. She had a real love for her sister Mary, and though she was educated by protestants, she would likely have been content to live as a Catholic if that were the norm. The Monarchy, however, had been weakened and the treasury depleted by Henry’s frivolity, and Elizabeth, pragmatic as she was, sought the support of Parliament–composed at this point almost exclusively of the protestant merchant class–without which she had no power to levy taxes. Desperate to hold on to power, she increasingly became the puppet of the protestant faction, and in particular of her chief advisor, William Cecil, whose strong financial interests dictated his animosity to the Catholic Church.

It was due to Cecil’s influence that harsh penalties were imposed on those Catholics remaining in England who wished to practice their religion in peace. Refusal to submit to the spiritual authority of the Crown came to be seen as treasonous. Cecil and his cohorts instituted a propaganda campaign linking the practice of Catholicism with support for Spain–England’s chief rival at the time–and made up all sorts of horrible lies about the atrocities of Spanish Catholicism, many of which are still generally accepted uncritically in America today.

This was the atmosphere in England upon Edmund Campion’s return in June of 1580. He traveled secretly from Catholic household to Catholic household, saying Mass and hearing confessions (both of which were punishable by death) and otherwise ministering to the underground Catholic population. He wrote a brief statement of his intentions, to be published in the case of his imprisonment, in which he emphasized his loyalty to England and to the temporal authority of the Queen, and explained that his only purpose was the salvation of souls. This document, nicknamed “Campion’s Brag,” got out prematurely and became widely disseminated throughout the Realm, though it was illegal to possess a copy. He was caught saying Mass one day by a professional priest hunter and was captured by the local authorities. He endured several interrogation sessions on the rack–by which he was permanently deprived the use of his limbs–without divulging any secret information, was put on trial for treason (which was obviously a farce; he was clearly being persecuted for his Catholicism), and was sentenced to death. On December 1st, 1581, he was taken to Tyburn, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered, a fate far worse than being burned alive.

Edmund Campion was beatified in 1886 by Pope Leo XIII and canonized in 1970 by Pope Paul VI. He is recognized as a Martyr of the Church.

We live in a time that is not so different from that of St. Edmund Campion. Let us all strive for sanctity in whatever way God calls us.

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