Keeper of the faith

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 16 February, 2008, 12:00am

After a solemn ceremony and a blessing of those who attended Mass on Sunday to mark his appointment as leader-in-waiting of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese, Coadjutor Bishop John Tong Hon explained why he had remained in the shadows for almost a decade over social and political issues.

'I have a clumsy tongue,' Bishop Tong said. 'There are many people with different talents in the church and each has been given a different kind of grace by God.'

Some observers have likened his apparent modesty to that of the biblical figure Moses, who is said to have shown a certain reluctance to accept God's call to lead ancient Israelites from Egyptian slavery.

Bishop Tong is known as a cleric who seldom reveals his deepest thoughts. He is slow to take sides and sometimes considered reserved. But his appointment by Pope Benedict XVI last month as Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun's successor came as no surprise.

Although he has a different style from Cardinal Zen, it would be wrong to assume his softer approach will equate to meekness on matters of faith or the engagement with social justice issues expected of a church leader.

As a veteran church identity who has played a bridging role between the mainland and the church, Bishop Tong is a leading authority on Beijing's firm stance on religious issues and the Catholic church.

Although some Catholics have expressed fears that the era of a 'prophetic church' will end with the retirement of Cardinal Zen, who is a tireless champion of society's underdogs and a fearless critic of the Hong Kong and central governments, most accept Bishop Tong as the right person to steer the church forward during a delicate period in Sino-Vatican relations.

Addressing the faithful on Sunday about the mission that lies ahead of him, Bishop Tong said people should be judged not only by their actions, but by who they are.

'All we do must be rooted in who we are,' he said. 'God has never promised the sky will always be blue and flowers unceasingly blossom. We need to pray to God for an increase in faith and strength, so that we can face any challenge.'

But so far the 68-year-old has given only a faint impression of the style he will adopt as the SAR's next Catholic church leader.

Born in Hong Kong on July 31, 1939, Bishop Tong's Catholic family fled to Macau during the second world war, when he was two. They settled in Guangzhou, where he went to school after Japan's defeat, and the Communist-Nationalist civil war was a turning point in his life.

The example set in those difficult times by his parish priest - a foreign missionary who Tong helped to distribute medicine and food to refugees escaping conflict - sparked his interest in the priesthood.

'It seemed like a miracle, but he had something to distribute every day,' Bishop Tong said at a Church conference in 2006 as he recounted how he was moved by the missionary's compassion. 'I wanted to be a priest like him in the future. [His] love was the seed of my vocation.'

Bishop Tong said his sense of mission was strengthened when his ordination to the priesthood in Rome after seminary training was unexpectedly postponed by a fortnight to January 6, 1966, so that the Pope could officiate in person.

Bishop Tong taught theology as a diocesan priest after his homecoming before being given a new mission when Deng Xiaoping introduced the mainland's 'open door' policy in 1978.

Foreseeing the diocese's special role as a bridge between the outside world and the mainland church, the late Cardinal John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung entrusted the then Father Tong with the directorship of the Holy Spirit Study Centre, which was established in 1980.

Bishop Tong and his small group of scholars travelled frequently to the mainland and established contacts with every mainland bishop - both those recognised by the government and 'underground' clerics loyal to the Pope. They have also compiled a detailed archive of mainland dioceses.

Bishop Tong's close connections with mainland Catholics are reflected in the experiences of the Hong Kong faithful, many of whom on their travels have been approached by their mainland brethren asking for letters and greetings to be passed on to the bishop.

But there was a cost in building such a rapport. Early in his career he drew fire for his dealings with the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, the state-run body that controls the officially sanctioned church on the mainland.

But the first-hand sharing of religious faith with mainland Catholics has made it inconceivable for him to budge on matters of religious freedom.

'I thank God for the good example of some faithful Chinese priests who celebrated their daily eucharist in bed under a mosquito net at midnight in the labour camps,' Bishop Tong said in 2006.

A key reason for the Holy See to select Cardinal Zen as the diocese's future leader in 1996 - the same year that Tong was named auxiliary bishop and the diocese's third in command - was Zen's experience in mainland affairs. But Vatican sources said Tong's China expertise also counted when his candidacy was considered following Zen's application for retirement in 2006.

As delicate negotiations continue between the Vatican and Beijing over re-establishing diplomatic relations, the choice of a future church leader for Hong Kong has been watched closely by Beijing.

That might explain why, compared to the high-profile celebrations when Zen and Tong received their episcopal ordinations in 1996, the arrangement this time was low key. There were no press conferences and no receptions for government officials.

Despite the fact he doesn't shrink from using terms such as 'communist persecution' and talking openly about religious freedom, Bishop Tong is less likely to deploy the bold language that has been Cardinal Zen's hallmark in some of his dealings with Beijing.

Bishop Tong's inner convictions were revealed in a prayer he published recently to mark the 40th anniversary of his entry into the priesthood.

He said he was entrusted 'with a mission to be a bridge of communion and reconciliation' among mainland Catholics, torn between bowing to the state and loyalty to the Pope.

However, undercurrents of concern remain over his future stance on social and political issues, despite the almost unanimous praise he has received in public.

One Catholic activist, who wished to remain anonymous, was concerned that the church would no longer remain at the forefront of a campaign for underprivileged groups and for democratisation.

'Bishop Tong might find it difficult to live up to the example of Cardinal Zen,' the activist said.

There was also concern that Bishop Tong's leadership might take a more conservative line on issues such as gay rights after Cardinal Zen's retirement.

Religious affairs analyst Beatrice Leung Kit-fun of the University of Hong Kong predicted the end of an activist church characterised by Cardinal Zen.

'Since Tong is a person with indecisive character, I fear that the era of the church as a prophet in Hong Kong will become history,' Professor Leung said.

But some Catholics argue that rather than being a sign of weakness, Bishop Tong's low-key approach is a demonstration of humility.

Although he is a leading authority on the mainland church, the media-shy cleric has on several occasions described himself as 'a small potato', referring this writer to Cardinal Zen, who is among the Pope's advisers on Chinese affairs.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a church affairs analyst and long-time collaborator with Bishop Tong, said: 'The appointment has reduced variables in the diocese. It has maintained stability among the clergy.'

But questions remain over whether Bishop Tong, an unproven administrator, can shoulder the large diocesan workload in addition to his responsibilities for the church's social communications and clergy training.

The order in his mission statement on Sunday also hinted at his priorities: service to the underprivileged, increasing the number of priests and lay believers, and working for religious freedom on the mainland.

But Bishop Tong was quick to say relationship-building with the Hong Kong and central governments must not corrupt church principles: 'We should also uphold justice. We should endorse what is right and criticise what is wrong. We cannot sacrifice principles in exchange for better relations.'

Cardinal Zen had these words for Bishop Tong: 'As pastors and shepherds, we don't live only by bread. We should not worship power. We should fight the culture of toadying to the powerful and despising the weak in Hong Kong.'

The life of a cleric

July 31, 1939: Born in Hong Kong

January 6, 1966: Ordained as a priest by Pope Paul VI

1970: Started teaching in Holy Spirit Seminary in Hong Kong after receiving a doctorate of theology in Rome's Pontifical Urban University

1980: Appointed director of Holy Spirit Study Centre

1992: Named vicar-general of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese

October 20, 1996: Appointed auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong

January 30, 2008: Becomes coadjutor bishop of Hong Kong