The following was first published on May 25, 2015 on AmericaMagazine.org
By: George Griener
He had wanted to be a veterinarian, but at the time one couldn’t study veterinary science in Hong Kong. Nevertheless, his affection and love for the animal world, especially cats, never faded, as is evidenced by the subject matter of so much of his near-professional quality photography.
Instead, he would end up studying biblical ethics. Two years ago the late Jesuit Dan Harrington observed in this journal: “In The Ten Commandments and the Beatitudes: Biblical Studies and Ethics for Real Life, Yiu Sing Lúcás Chan, a Jesuit from Hong Kong…[has achieved] something of a milestone in the history of the relationship between biblical exegesis and Catholic moral theology.”
His second monograph, Biblical Ethics in the 21st Century: Developments, Emerging Consensus, and Future Directions complemented the first. He was convinced that ethicists had to be in dialogue with the best of biblical scholarship, and that scholars of the bible had to understand sound ethical theory, and he suggested virtue ethics as an apt interlocutor.
He was a modern, highly gifted pioneer in the field, publishing widely in Asian Christian Review, Asian Horizons, Budhi, and Chinese Cross Currents, among others. Recently, March 2015, he published a survey of the contemporary field in Theological Studies, “Biblical Ethics: 3D.” A book review authored by Chan appeared in America earlier this year.
Lúcás Chan died Tuesday, May 19th, only weeks short of turning 47, of an apparent heart attack in his Marquette University office. Two days before he had been invited, after only one year on the faculty, to deliver the invocation at Marquette’s Commencement for Arts and Sciences. His death was met with shock and disbelief by scholars and friends from Myanmar and Slovenia, Taiwan and mainland China, to Germany, Ireland and the United States. People who knew about each other only through their own conversations with Lúcás began to search each other out to share their grief.
When he died, he was finishing preparation for coordinating and hosting the first ever International Asian Conference of Catholic ethicists this July in Bangalore, India. He was to team-teach a two week course on ethics in Bangalore prior to the conference. He would then spend the summer doing research in Berlin, retreat work in Slovenia, and enjoying visits to Dublin and Prague with Professor Emeriti. He was also co-editing a book, The Bible and Catholic Theological Ethics,which would draw biblical scholars and ethicists from seventeen countries. Editors of the planned next edition of the prestigious Jerome Biblical Commentary had also asked him for a major, almost book length essay on biblical ethics.
His death was a major loss not only to the many who knew and loved this wise, generous and faithful friend, but especially to the world of cross-cultural theological ethics. His remarkable ability to move serenely across cultural boundaries would have made him an excellent person for bridging the multicultural world of Asian theology. Moreover, his long range agenda, already evident in his two published monographs, was to provide a bridge between Christian ethics and the world of Confucian values.
Lúcás Chan was born in Hong Kong June 7, 1968, where his family still lives. Education studies in his home town led to graduate work at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom. In 1993 he entered the Chinese Jesuit Province. Contact with Irish Jesuits working in Hong Kong wetted an interest in Ireland, Irish culture and justice for the Irish cause that never left him: green framed glasses were only one expression of this affection!
One summer, when studying Irish culture, he was chosen to be part of a group to meet the President of Ireland. His usual simple dress—jeans and sneakers—wouldn’t do. He was taken to a shoe store, fitted with fine black shoes. Then he asked the proprietor: “Where were these shoes made?” “In England,” was the reply. To which he answered: “I won’t visit the President of Ireland wearing English made shoes.” He was resolute in carrying out what he held dear, but always with a sense of humor. Humor, even self-effacing humor, was an endearing and enduring quality of his: he quipped that he spoke Italian best after several glasses of wine!
After early Jesuit training in Singapore, social work among the handicapped in Cambodia, theological studies in Manila, Chan completed his PhD at Boston College under James Keenan, Dan Harrington and Lisa Cahill. He was then awarded two visiting fellowships, at Yale University and the Woodstock Center. He also spent summers in Germany and Italy.
But he would return to Ireland for tertianship (Jesuit “finishing school”) and then was proud to spend a second year there as the first occupant of the Michael Hurley, S.J. Fellowship at the Irish School of Ecumenics at Trinity College, Dublin. Michael Hurley had been a pioneer in ecumenical and peace studies in the war-torn country. He was the brother of Hong Kong Jesuit, James Hurley, who had introduced Chan to the Society of Jesus.
Chan made close friends with politicians and kitchen staff, world class academics and ordinary parishioners, judges in Kentucky, and condemned prisoners in Singapore jails—he was once the messenger between an inmate and his parents, who could not afford to visit their dying AIDS-infected son. He loved people and the world passionately, no one was excluded from his affection.
He made everyone he met feel that he or she was the most important person in the world for him. Writing to a friend the day before his own death, he outlined his world-wide summer itinerary, then concluded: “But no matter how exciting this agenda sounds, above all I look forward to seeing you, your wife….and the cats!”
His enduring smile and warm heart are the characteristics most often mentioned by friends since his death. One grieving colleague wrote from Germany: “I imagine him in the peace of God, where his smile and his joy will never end.” But he could also gently chide when his own deeply rooted Confucian sense of values was offended by aspects of Western individualism. He owned the authentic dimensions of his Chinese roots.
Lúcás Chan, S.J., was an excellent scholar, a compassionate pastor, a loyal friend, a kind teacher, and a wise, loving human being. A saying found in the Babylonia Talmud* seems especially appropriate as we recall the life of Lucas Chan, “Rabbi Yohanan taught that when the living quote the teachings of a scholar who has died, that departed scholar’s lips whisper in the grave.” May his lips whisper in our ears into the future.