Can the culture of life take root and flourish in the very midst of the culture of death? This crucial question is answered in the affirmative by the Missionaries of the Poor, one of the fastest growing religious orders in the Church today.
Father Richard Ho Lung founded the Brothers of the Poor, as they were then called, in 1981, with a handful of disciples, half of whom would leave soon afterwards to pursue a less challenging life. Today, a little over thirty years later, the Missionaries of the Poor have missions in Jamaica, Haiti, Uganda, Kenya, India, the Philippines, Indonesia, and the United States. Their success is about to be recognized officially by the Vatican with the bestowal upon them of the status of Pontifical Institute, the Church’s recognition that a religious congregation has become the Catholic equivalent of a global corporation.
Continuing this intriguing and perhaps inappropriate and irreverent analogy, Father Ho Lung, a child of poor Chinese immigrants to Jamaica, is the equivalent of a CEO of a multinational missionary corporation! And yet this corporation, or institute, has no employees because nobody earns a salary. Furthermore, Father Ho Lung, its CEO, or Founder-Father, earns the same as everyone else, i.e. nothing. This is a global corporation with a difference, one which offers itself in free service to those who are poorest.
The Missionaries of the Poor do not accept any payment for its work because its “customers” are not able to pay. Amazingly, and some might say miraculously, this “business model” has proved a resounding success, with young men from India, Africa, the Philippines, and the Caribbean rushing to join the “company” of Brothers. Father Richard Ho Lung, born of humble and simple origin, under the shadow of anonymity, in the poverty of Jamaica, has come a long way!
The charism of the Missionaries of the Poor is challenging in the extreme. The Brothers take the customary religious vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but also promise to give themselves fully and totally in free service to the poorest of the poor. Those who visit their missions are struck by the poverty in which the Brothers live and the love that they bestow upon the poorest and weakest in society. It is indeed very difficult to describe the profound impression that the Brothers make upon those who see them at work.
In the past couple of years I have visited the MOP centers in the heart of the Kingston ghetto in Jamaica as part of my work on a book about the MOP and its apostolate. On visiting their homes for severely disabled children and adults, or for the homeless and the elderly, or for those dying of aids, one is struck by the transformative power of love. Such love is epitomized in Father Ho Lung’s description of those with Down’s syndrome as “very special children: God’s children”:
They live on love, and they live to love. They are basic elemental human nature, in all its beauty and simplicity. We know that if anyone has a Down’s syndrome child, they can be sure that joy, laughter, and love have been given to them as a special gift from God. We welcome these gifts with delight.
As the father of Leo, a ten-year-old child with Down’s syndrome, I can heartily endorse Father Ho Lung’s words. Leo is indeed a special gift from God and he has been the bringer of joy, laughter and love to our family, as well as the setter of many challenges, the latter of which, though painful on occasion, have benefited us more than all the laughter and joy. Someone told me recently that most of us are given life in order to learn but that some very special people are given life in order to teach.
Children with Down’s syndrome are, in accordance with this profoundly true definition, very special people. They are here to teach the rest of us about love, not merely in the “feel-good” sense in which the word is so often abused in our largely loveless world, but in the self-sacrificial sense, which is the heart of love’s deepest meaning.
If the true definition of love is to lay down one’s life for the other, the child with Down’s syndrome or with other challenging disabilities teaches us how to love more fully and more truly. Can there be a greater gift to any family than the gift of this very special love? This being so, how wicked is the world in which we now live, a world which systematically exterminates children with Down’s syndrome and other disabilities? How wicked is a world which enshrines the “right” of a mother to choose to kill her own unborn children? How wicked is a world which systematically discriminates against the weak, the infirm and the disabled by encouraging mothers to kill their own “imperfect” babies? Once again, Father Ho Lung encapsulates the heart and hub of the problem:
There are so many worries in the world because our modern world requires that we have so much. We sophisticated people battle and compete to acquire so much, intellectually and financially … There are so many goods that are there to be had; so we miss the flowers, the trees, the birds of the air, and each other.
There is no ambition, no battle for power, no pomp, no falsehood, no hypocrisy in the Down’s syndrome people.
How refreshing it is to hear such a voice of sanity and sanctity in the midst of the darkness of the world! It is for this reason that my book on Father Ho Lung and the Missionaries of the Poor is entitled Candles in the Dark. To return to our original question, the culture of life can not only thrive and flourish in the midst of the culture of death it can be a powerful witness, a beacon of light and love that helps to vanquish the darkness and despair of nihilism.