Outspoken priest feels betrayed by church's retreat

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 November, 2010, 12:00am

The priest who likened Li Ka-shing to the devil has spoken of his 'feelings of betrayal' about not being consulted before the Catholic Church issued a statement of regret over his comments.

Father Thomas Law Kwok-fai stood by the remarks, which he says were made in the context of rising public anger about big business and community concern about the widening wealth gap.

In an interview with the Sunday Morning Post after saying Mass yesterday, Law said: 'My deepest sadness is the feeling of betrayal. My comments were made as part of a casual chat. As a citizen, why can't I make comments which are in accordance with the church's teaching?'

Law said that at no point during the controversy had he been asked to give evidence or been given the chance to defend himself.

'I regret how other people have expressed regret on my behalf. Why not give me an opportunity to give my account? Why should someone unrelated claim responsibility? This is something I really don't understand,' he said.

His remarks were made at a Halloween party. After pointing out that ghosts and goblins were not terrible compared with the 'real devils', Law said: 'If Li Ka-shing were here tonight he would be scared to death. He should be afraid about the last few years of his life.

'Those [who build] inflated buildings will definitely be scared to death. If Cafe De Coral came, it would be even more dreadful. Those are the real man-eating devils.'

Law says he could never have imagined that what he told the media in a jokey manner after a party - not from in front of the altar - would draw the wrath of the tycoon. Li, Hong Kong's richest man, complained to the diocese's leadership.

A complaint was made by Gerald Ma - a senior member of staff with Li's Cheung Kong (Holdings), who is also on the committee of the church's social service arm, Caritas - to the head of Caritas, Michael Yeung Ming-cheung. Yeung is also the diocese's vicar-general. This was followed by a personal conversation between Li and Yeung.

The diocese then expressed its regret that Law's comments had displeased Li, who in turn promised the incident would not affect his future donations to Caritas.

Law said he called on his experience of having shared the pain of old people who lived in cage homes, compatriots denied religious freedom and orphans whose families were broken by the economic downturn when forming his opinions.

'Call it the fire of love, rather than hatred,' he said. 'Hatred burns and consumes, while the love of God purifies the heart and sets the people free.'

Many may wonder why a priest who is known in church circles as an expert on Catholic liturgy has hit the headlines for making comments of a sort not uncommon in wider society.

Law is known for his love of spicing up his sermons with jokes at the Mother of Good Counsel parish of San Po Kong. The priest said he was simply trying to make it easier for his mainly working-class flock to understand what constitutes the sin of oppressing of the poor.

'If you look at the context, I was talking about an unfair property sales practice, which is legal but not morally right. I was talking about things happening in society that put people in pain and in shame.'

The theme of the Halloween party was what happens after people die, and how God would judge everyone according to what they have done in life. 'It was not personal. I was only using the Mr Li as an illustration. I condemn the sin, rather than the person,' Law said.

Some have seen Law's subsequent treatment as part of a power struggle in the diocese and an attempt to clamp down on dissent.

Law's insistence on church affairs being handled in the proper way may be related to his position as the diocese's leading expert on liturgy - a position in which he earned a reputation for being hot-tempered and not afraid to raise his voice when procedures in Mass go wrong.

'It is inaccurate to describe me as hot-tempered. When I am not joking and focused on serious matters, I can be very serious. There can be no mistake as to whether I was making a joke or being serious,' Law said.

People are familiar with the firmly outspoken stance that the diocese's former head, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, takes on social justice issues. Law said his belief in a just society was the result of 30 year's experience in the priesthood.

Born in 1950, the eldest of five children of a welder, Law was typical of the working-class struggle to make a living in post-war Hong Kong amid a changing economic landscape.

He said his experience as a technician in a Kowloon electronics factory in the late 1960s gave him a lasting impression of how frontline workers were exploited - and had made him contemplate the true meaning of life.

'I know about the hardships the working people faced because I have been there,' he said. Instead of studying to become a social worker, Law entered a seminary and was ordained a priest in 1979.

Among his first assignments as a young priest was visiting and helping single elderly people living in crowded cage homes in the working-class district of Kennedy Town.

The experience of finding an immobile old lady lying in her own excrement in bed during a visit to administer communion furthered his conviction that the face of God is manifested among the poorest of the poor.

In the decade following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown on pro-democracy protesters, he was among the first group of Hong Kong church experts, along with Zen, to teach mainland seminarians and priests. That was an effort to modernise the liturgy in the mainland church, which was under pressure from the tight government limits on religious freedom.

His return to parish life as head of a church in Tsuen Wan in 1999 allowed him to identify deeply with the difficulties many in Hong Kong have experienced buying - and keeping hold of - their own homes.

During the Sars outbreak in 2003, which coincided with an economic downturn, the suffering spread across the city, affecting many in Law's flock. A large number lost their jobs and were forced to give up their homes because they could not keep up the mortgage payments.

'I have presided over the funerals of parishioners who committed suicide by burning charcoal. I understand their pain,' Law said. 'I had young people asking me: God created the earth for all mankind. Why can people not even own their own place to live in Hong Kong? The earth is for people to toil - but why there is no chance for honest people to get a job?'

Law said it pains him to see that the feelings of the people may not be truly understood by diocesan leaders at the church's headquarters in Mid-Levels. 'In this incident, you can see the church's leadership has put too wide a distance between itself and the feelings of the people,' he said.

He said he had no regrets about what he said and nothing to retract. He would 'continue to stand up for the oppressed', he said. The church should not bow down before the rich and powerful, Law said. Church leaders should 'put down their ego' and listen to the people.

'Why was Jesus nailed to the cross? Because he was not afraid to speak out.'

Cheung Kong could not be contacted for comment last night.