Vatican recognition gives boost to ‘Mother Teresa of the Caribbean’

The website of the Missionaries of the Poor

On December 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception, the Holy See promulgated the decretum laudis raising the Missionaries of the Poor (MOP), established in Kingston, Jamaica in 1981, to the status of Lay Religious Institute of Pontifical Right.

On April 26, at the Holy Trinity Cathedral in Kingston, more than 1,500 people turned out for a Solemn Mass of Thanksgiving to mark this major landmark in the order’s history. Tents had to be set up outside the cathedral to accommodate the overflow.

The Missionaries of the Poor were founded by Fr Richard Ho Lung, who has been called “the Mother Teresa of the Caribbean”. Like the early Franciscans, they have espoused poverty, but specifically in order to serve the poor, the old and infirm, Aids sufferers, the physically and mentally handicapped, and those whose lives are threatened in the womb.

Brother Hayden Augustine, who was present at the inception of MOP, explained to me the significance of the new status for their work. A Lay Religious Order of Pontifical Right depends directly and exclusively on the Holy See rather than the local bishop for matters of internal governance and discipline.

In the course of the approval process, Fr Ho Lung made some four visits to Rome to present the case and demonstrate that the Missionaries are sufficiently international in their reach (MOP now has missions in eight countries), of a certain size (there are now 300 Brothers in vows and 250 in formation) and that it has existed for at least 20 years (MOP is in its 34th year).

With the new status came new governance rules. Brother Augusto Silot from the Philippines is now the Brother-General and the General Council consists of the vicar-general, Brother Maximo Medina, from Belize, and three Counselors, Brothers Marc Maurice of Haiti, Henry Lozano of the Philippines and Anil Minj of India. The secretary-general is Brother Ambrose Kulandairaj also from India, indeed the first of many Brothers in MOP from that country.

The greater authority that comes with the new status should help its further expansion into other countries. New missions are being planned for Vietnam and East Timor. As a result of one visit to Vietnam, there are now three young Vietnamese candidates for the novitiate and, with the recent arrival of two Brothers from Indonesia, expansion there is also being considered.

Explaining how new missions are established, Brother Hayden said that two or three Brothers visit the country and assess the local needs and try to determine whether they fit MOP’s special charisma of Joyful Service with Christ on the Cross. They also take into account the potential for new vocations from within the local community and whether the local Church will give the required initial support.

Brother Hayden remarked on how many local churches are often surprised at how seriously the Missionaries take their vocation of service to the poor and their dedication not only to helping but to living alongside the poor.

Since my last visit to Kingston, in 2013, the community of Sisters has grown. They now number 13, four of whom are at the canonical stage of their novitiate during which the emphasis is less on work with the poor and more on prayer and study and includes a rigorous 40-day retreat. In October 2014 they moved into their new convent building, Regina Coeli. That is where I met Sister Joanna from Toronto, Canada, the first Sister in MOP to profess perpetual vows. She is now the Superior at Holy Innocents, a centre that helps pregnant women who might be pressured into abortion.

Back in 2007, when a law to legalise abortion was being debated in the Jamaican parliament, Fr Ho Lung and Sister Joanna attended some of the debates and Fr Ho Lung took up the challenge to do something practical for those women who might be convinced that they had no alternative.

In 2008, Sister Joanna, who had been volunteering with the Missionaries since 2006, accepted Fr Ho Lung’s invitation to assume the leadership role at what was to become Holy Innocents.

Like many others who have volunteered with MOP, she has had her own personal encounter with Christ. One day, while still a volunteer, she was distributing food at the Faith Centre when her foot hit something on the floor. As she looked down to see what it was, she had a vision of Christ’s bleeding face, His crown of thorns and His arms outstretched towards her. She froze. A moment later the vision had gone and she saw a poor, disabled man who had been lying there, unnoticed. As she later contemplated that vision she felt that “slowly but surely I was giving my heart totally over to Him”.

When she returned home to Canada, her friends asked if she was looking so happy because she’d met a man.

“Yes,” she said, “I met a man.”

“So, it’s going to be a long-distance relationship?”

“No,” she answered. “I brought Him home. In fact, He was here all the time.”

Although she is the Superior, Sister Joanna was hanging out the washing when I visited Holy Innocents. A trained nurse, she and the other Sisters care for the women who are referred to them by the police, local authorities or by family members.

She tells a different story of abortion from the ones peddled by pro-abortionists. For example, there is the woman who aborted her baby and is now going quietly insane because each night she hears a baby crying. Then there is the 17-year-old who has already had two abortions and now wants death for herself since the self-loathing she feels is so overwhelming.

Holy Innocents can accommodate up to 19 expectant women at any one time. Recently an ultrasound machine was donated and a medical clinic is open each Thursday. Phone counseling is also provided.

Some other things however have not changed over the years and one of them is Fr Ho Lung’s fearlessness in the face of secular powers and hostile public opinion. He has spoken out against violence on the streets and in the womb. In a newspaper article he recently rebuked the Minister of Youth and Culture of Jamaica, Lisa Hanna, for giving a bad example to Jamaican youth with a photograph she posted on Instagram. His remarks provoked a wave of hostile criticism.

Attending early morning Mass with the Brothers on Ash Wednesday, I noticed something alarming – how few white faces there are among the Missionaries. Are Europe and North America now heathen lands waiting to be evangelised again? Fr Ho Lung has spoken repeatedly of the evils of consumerism and perhaps it is why we in the West, unlike men and women from poorer countries, are not able to follow in his footsteps.

One cannot also help noticing that, though they live in the midst of one of the most violent areas of Kingston, there is such tranquility inside the walls of their community; amid the filth, they always seem so spotless; amid the suffering, so joyful.

They were particularly joyful at the three-hour Mass of Thanksgiving on April 26. Some 150 of the 200 Brothers in Jamaica formed the entrance procession along with several bishops, priests and deacons. The Papal Nuncio, Archbishop Nicolas Girasoli, gave the homily.

Also present were Cardinal Kelvin Felix (the first cardinal in the Antilles Episcopal Conference) and Archbishop Thumma Bala of Hyderabad, India, recalling that MOP’s first overseas mission was set up in southern India in February 1992.

Most of the music was of Fr Ho Lung’s own composition and the congregation was welcomed by the drum-corps made up of youth from the ghetto. A model ship was used to symbolise how Brothers had travelled to Jamaica from across the globe to join the community in Kingston.

Fr Ho Lung also spoke and he reminded the assembled bishops that “you will have a church packed like this every single Sunday if you pour yourself out in mercy and in service of the poor and sinners.”