Bishop Tong joins Zen as HK cardinal

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 07 January, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 07 January, 2012, 12:00am


Hong Kong's Bishop John Tong Hon has been named one of 22 new cardinals by Pope Benedict, highlighting the significance of the city in the Vatican's push to extend its influence in China.

He will become the seventh Chinese cardinal in the history of the Catholic Church. Tong will also become the third cardinal from Hong Kong, after the late cardinal John Baptist Wu Cheng-chung, and Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

A Catholic scholar believed Tong's appointment had no strong implications for Sino-Vatican relations. But many observers have attributed the seemingly improving relations to Tong, whose soft approach is thought to have led Beijing to change its attitude to the diocese.

Beijing long regarded Zen - who retired as head of the diocese in 2009 - with suspicion because of his often harsh criticisms about the lack of religious freedom on the mainland and the lack of democratic progress in Hong Kong.

Zen regularly criticised Beijing for its unilateral ordination of several mainland bishops without papal approval. In 2010, Tong said: 'Perhaps Beijing feels the way I do things is less provocative for them. I have always told them about my views and what I disagreed with. I am not a yes-man. It's just that I won't make my criticisms through the newspapers.'

He used his 2010 Christmas message to criticise Beijing and urge the release of jailed dissidents, likening them to the shining star that led three wise men to the baby Jesus in the biblical nativity story.

Last year he spoke up on the case of a two-year-old girl left to die after being struck by a truck in Guangzhou, saying it was 'a warning call for us to get rid of our selfishness'.

Tong's appointment means the co-existence of two cardinals at the same time, a first in the city's history.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre, which studies issues related to the Catholic Church in China, said: 'Hong Kong is a desirable place.

'With advantages in language, the cardinals can express the ideologies of the Catholic Church in accordance with Chinese culture. Although Hong Kong is a small city, its importance in Rome has always been significant.'

The 22 cardinals-elect will be formally appointed at a conference in Vatican City next month.

Cardinals are tasked with finding a successor when the Pope dies, usually choosing one of their own.

Seven of the new cardinals are Italian. The others are from India, Canada, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, the US and Germany.

Zen will turn 80 next Friday. With Tong receiving the red hat in February, he will take over the right to elect the next pope.

The Hong Kong Catholic diocese is the largest Chinese diocese in the world, with more than 357,000 Chinese Catholics and more than 17,000 Catholics of other nationalities, mainly Filipino.