When the Chinese community gathered at St. Agatha’s Church, Sunset Park, Sunday, Feb. 18, to celebrate the Lunar New Year, its members put first things first.
They started the celebration with a Mass led by Auxiliary Bishop Octavio Cisneros.
“After we give thanksgiving to God, we give thanksgiving to the ancestors,” said Father Vincentius Do, pastor.
After the concluding rite, the congregation remained in their pews to honor the traditions of the Chinese New Year. As the bishop and priests came back to the altar, the church was filled with the loud rhythmic banging of drums.
In the typical festive manner, women dressed all in red wielding drums processed down the aisle.
A festive dragon followed to the glee of the children. The traditional red dragon marched to the beat of drums engaging the congregation. When the dragon reached the front of the church, it bowed low before the altar of God, the altar of the ancestors and the bishops and priests. A joyful Bishop Cisneros blessed the dragon and then fed the dragon as a symbol of the beginning of the New Year: the Year of the Dog.
In the spirit of gratitude, the bishop and priests accepted symbolic gifts from the congregation to place on the small altar set up in honor of the ancestors of the Chinese people.
The first gift to be presented was incense. Father Do said it symbolizes the path of prayer. Just as incense rises up, the prayers of the faithful ascend to heaven. The prayers are for the ancestors and to the ancestors for intercession on behalf of the living – a physical symbol of the communion of saints.
When the incense reached the front of the church, the bishop and priests bowed three times before the altars and placed the first gift. This was repeated for each of the gifts.
Also offered were flowers, a symbol of love that the living have for their ancestors. Father Do explained that even though they are separated by the vale of tears, their love is not limited.
The third gift was a variety of fruits, symbolizing the result of labor. Father Do explained that in this offering the Chinese faithful hope that their own work is pleasing to the ancestors. It also symbolizes a thanksgiving for the labor the ancestors completed during their time on earth.
The last offering was wine, a symbol of life, in thanksgiving for the life the faithful inherited from their ancestors.
Bishop Cisneros was then asked to distribute traditional red envelopes holding a small monetary gift. The priests and sisters first received the gifts and then all the children were asked to come up and receive one envelope each. It is tradition that children receive little red envelopes from adults during the festivities.
Bishop Cisneros praised the community for keeping its festivals alive.
“It is special because it is about tradition,” he said. “It is about who we are and our roots. Without roots, the plant withers.”
After Mass, the congregation continued the celebration downstairs in the converted lower church where they shared a traditional Chinese meal and enjoyed the talents of fellow parishioners. Adults performed a waist drum dance and played the Guzheng or Chinese Zither. Children from the CCD program dazzled adults with traditional dances, tae-kwon-do and the cha-cha.
Sister Ngov Pham of the Congregation of the Mission Sisters of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Queen of the World in Vietnam, known as Sister Rosa to the community, performed magic tricks for the children. At the end, all the children were invited to the stage to sing and dance for the New Year.
Sister Dilecta Yang, SMIC, who organized the event, said the community was happy to help in the parish celebration and with the parish throughout the year in any way they can. She explained that it is difficult for many parishioners because most are new immigrants and work very hard, making Sunday attendance a true sacrifice.
Father Do said he is happy that the Chinese parishioners used the parish hall for events that foster community. He said the parishioners are very grateful that they can worship openly and without fear because many of them are seeking asylum from the Chinese government’s persecution.
Keeping with the festive mood of the Lunar New Year, the celebration did not mention the current persecution that Christians face in China, but the petition was heartfelt during the prayer of the faithful. The people asked for protection for their families in China.
Father Do said that many of the Chinese parishioners at St. Agatha have family members still living in China who, by trying to stay loyal to the Catholic Church, were forced into the underground.