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Chinese Catholic priest: Observe feng shui, but …

A devotee decorates a crucifix at a Catholic church in Chinatown, Binondo with incense and other traditional Chinese displays. According to folklore, Sto. Cristo de Longos was discovered in the 16th century by a deaf Chinese as he was drawing water from a well.

MANILA, Philippines - Can Christians adhere to traditional Chinese practices without going against their faith? A Catholic priest of Chinese ancestry thinks so, under certain conditions.

Father Jimmy Liao grew up practicing traditional customs such as burning incense and offering food for his late grandparents during their special anniversaries in the lunar calendar.

After learning more about the Catholic faith, Liao later realized that the use of incense and offering of food is like lighting candles as gestures of veneration before Jesus, the saints and even departed loved ones.

“This is part of acculturation since candles were hardly used decades ago. Yes, traditional Chinese practices can be applicable in Christian worship. Nowadays both are followed,” he said in an interview with Philstar.

Liao, who spent decades in Hong Kong and Taiwan for pastoral ministry, also thinks there is practical science behind feng shui, believed to attract positive life energies through the physical arrangement of one’s surroundings.

“The popularity of feng shui cannot be denied and the practice of this ‘living skill’ undoubtedly requires study, time, patience, and money. Certainly we can admit that feng shui always improves one's living condition,” Liao said.

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Drawing the line

Liao, who as Theological Centrum executive director heads instructional activities for secular clergymen, cautioned Christians, however, not to replace belief in God’s hand with the invisible forces that feng shui is believed to direct.

“I often tell people that is allowed as long as one does not exchange it for prayer and trust in the divine providence,” he said.

Liao added that the practice is sometimes falsely seen as largely about bringing in wealth although it genuinely inspires interior and architectural design to create an impression of harmony in homes or offices.

Others, however, dismiss feng shui as mere superstition, and in some ways it may oppose Catholic teaching against superstitious beliefs and unreasonable faith in luck.

“It is not a quick magic cure because it represents only one-third of the trinity of luck: Heaven, which is what one is born with; Mankind, which is what one does with one's life; And earth, which is feng shui,” Liao explained.

Other traditional Chinese practices bordering on superstition, however, are discouraged if one wishes to be faithful to the Christian creed.

“Burning paper money is indeed superstition as the Chinese consider that the dead need some money in the other world. So, I don't practice it and discourage it among the Filipino-Chinese Catholics here in our country,” Liao said.

Father Jimmy Liao gives the homily during Mass celebrating his 30th year in the priesthood.

Of culture and creed

Liao is the first alumnus of Xavier School to become a priest since its foundation in 1956. The Jesuit-run preparatory school offers instruction specific to Chinese-Filipino boys.

He admitted, however, that it can be difficult to explain Catholic teachings to conservative Chinese who are deeply into Buddhist or Taoist beliefs.

“If they are told not to practice (some superstitions), it's like asking them to stop being Chinese and become a non-Chinese. Nonetheless, as they become more educated in Western culture and history, Christianity can then be explained to them,” he said.

As he recounted in a previous interview, Liao experienced this firsthand in explaining his decision to become a priest to his parents, who eventually understood his calling by learning more about Christianity.

Two years after his ordination as a priest in 1977, Liao baptized his late father into Catholicism with the Christian name “Josemaria” as a sign of Liao’s devotion to Saint Josemaria Escriva, known as “the saint of ordinary life.”

“[Traditional Chinese] can accept Christianity, understanding that superstitions are the result of reliance to worldly gods while they can have a more certain assurance of help from the Christian God,” he said.

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