BY GABRIELLE McMULLEN
On my return from Europe in January this year, I made a visit to Hong Kong in support of a long-standing and valued partnership with Caritas-Hong Kong. I am a member of the institute Development Steering Committee of the Caritas institute of Higher Education, which is charged with developing Catholic higher education and ultimately a future Catholic university in Hong Kong.
My involvement came through my former role at Australian Catholic University, which has worked collaboratively with Caritas in the provision of higher education qualifications for over 20 years. Pleasingly, Caritas institute of Higher Education has recently gained degree-granting status.
Most of us will be aware of and likely support the admirable work of Caritas Australia as “the international aid and development organisation of the Catholic Church in Australia”. The development, history and scope of Caritas-Hong Kong are rather different to our local experience, reflecting the diverse nature of the Church’s social activities through the 165 member organisations of Caritas Internationalis.
Let me return to Caritas-Hong Kong, which was founded by the diocese in July 1953 in response to “dramatic social emergencies” following the influx of mainland Chinese refugees into the British colony. The population more than tripled from 1945 to 1951 and had then doubled again by the late 1960s. At this time Hong Kong had the largest concentration of refugees in the world, and there was an urgent need to provide food, sanitation, housing, education, healthcare and welfare services on a massive scale.
Caritas-Hong Kong was the initiative of German-born Father Charles Herman Vath and the German Church has been particularly generous to Caritas-Hong Kong. Initially titled the Catholic Social Welfare Conference of the Diocese of Hong Kong and already an affiliate of Caritas Internationalis, it was renamed Caritas-Hong Kong in 1961.
A key influence in its development and achievements was Father Francesco Lerda, a member of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions, who was appointed Vice-President in 1961 and then from 1968 was Caritas President for 35 years. Under his dedicated and selfless leadership, Caritas grew into a major network of agencies, which are highly respected within Hong Kong Church, civic and wider circles for their extraordinary services for “the last, the least and the lost within the community”.
The following provides insight into the extent of the legacy of Fathers Vath and Lerda – in 2012 Caritas ministers to the Hong Kong community through 240 service units at 140 different locations, with more than 4900 full-time staff and support from over 10,000 volunteers.
While it responds generously to those in distress, Caritas puts its emphasis on services aimed at enabling people to develop themselves, and to overcome disadvantage. Its activities include education, medical, social work and other types of services detailed below as well as community development initiatives and pastoral care.
Education Services encompass pre-, secondary and special schools, and adult, vocational and higher education. In total some 60 facilities offer Catholic education. In this complex society with its diverse belief traditions, there are particular challenges to promoting Catholic identity and mission in Catholic agencies.
Only a minority of teachers and students are Catholic but Caritas seeks, through its educational philosophy, to promote the integral human development of all its students and staff, and to address disadvantage through inclusivity and opportunities for lifelong learning.
Medical Services operate seven clinics and three hospitals in various districts across Hong Kong. These focus on providing affordable, quality healthcare for local residents.
Caritas is also the largest provider of social services in Hong Kong and, through its Social Work Services arm, delivers services based on human dignity, respect and self-determination which are truly embedded in the fabric of Hong Kong society. Social Work Services work particularly with the disadvantaged to assist individuals and families to overcome difficulties and realise their potential.
Other ministries of Caritas include financially self-supporting hospitality services, including opportunities for vocational training placements, and not-for-profit holiday camps. In addition, its Mainland Services provide educational programs, assistance to poverty-stricken villages, and rehabilitation projects for victims of natural disasters.
Since its humble beginnings, Caritas-Hong Kong has sought to grow with its community and succeeded in this endeavour. For nearly 60 years it has brought Christ’s love (‘Caritas’) to Hong Kong and its region in a uniquely catholic way through its educational facilities and programs, medical centres, social services, community development initiatives, pastoral care, hospitality and so much more. For their service to Hong Kong and its peoples, the ministries of Caritas have won public recognition and respect.
In the last decade Caritas has faced new challenges as Hong Kong made the transition from a British colony to re-unification with China. In serving the common good in its now critical location in the global context, Caritas-Hong Kong has a wider influence in bringing the love of Christ to the society it serves. Under its current Director, Father M. C. Michael Yeung VG, an able and fitting successor to the esteemed Father Lerda, Caritas-Hong Kong faces these challenges with dedicated staff, effective infrastructure and profound hope. In the coming years, I particularly look forward to the realisation of Caritas’ vision for the Catholic university in Hong Kong (and China).
Professor Gabrielle McMullen is Emeritus Professor, Australian Catholic University.
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