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Catholic Church

New Hong Kong bishop likely to display new style as a man of ‘frankness and principle’

Michael Yeung has raised eyebrows in the past over his comments on homosexuality and Beijing’s Basic Law interpretation on the taking of oaths

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 8:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 03 August, 2017, 5:12pm

Hong Kong’s new bishop, Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, stoked controversy when he compared homosexual behaviour with drug abuse, yet showed a more liberal side when he questioned Beijing’s decision to interpret the Basic Law over the lawmakers’ oath-taking saga.

The two incidents may well sum up the style of the new head of the Catholic Church described by a commentator as a man of “frankness and principle”.

Yeung, 71, was appointed by Pope Francis to succeed the retiring Cardinal John Tong Hon on Tuesday – a day after Tong’s 78th birthday.

New Hong Kong bishop pledges to speak out on freedoms, but insists no compromise on gay rights

Tong was originally expected to retire shortly after he reached the retirement age of 75 in 2014. But in July that year, Pope Francis asked Tong to stay on as bishop of Hong Kong for another three years and appointed Yeung and two other senior priests as auxiliary bishops.

Yeung was seen by many as Tong’s eventual successor after he became an auxiliary bishop. In January 2015, Yeung became chairman of the management board and council of Caritas Hong Kong, the social service arm of the 389,000-strong Catholic diocese.

Then, in November 2016, his status as the incoming bishop was sealed when Pope Francis named him Hong Kong’s coadjutor bishop – Cardinal Tong’s deputy.

Yeung is best remembered in recent years for his controversial statement in November 2015 that the Catholic Church would speak out against homosexual behaviour just as it would against drug abuse. He made the comment in defence of Tong’s earlier pastoral letter that Catholics should consider candidates’ views on gay rights when voting in upcoming district council polls.

The church doesn’t have any enemy and it wouldn’t criticise anyone
Rev Michael Yeung Ming-cheung

“The church doesn’t have any enemy and it wouldn’t criticise anyone. It was only talking about a wrongdoing. For example, it is wrong to take drugs and we would say so, but we still love drug addicts,” Yeung said.

The duo’s comments were criticised by gay rights groups, but they remained unapologetic.

Yeung has been relatively liberal on political issues. On July 12, 2014, days after becoming an auxiliary bishop, Yeung said while the church would neither encourage nor stop Catholics from joining Occupy, a pro-democracy civil disobedience movement which broke out in September that year, it would offer help to anyone arrested.

“If [a father] knows a son was doing something wrong, he would still help him. On the issue of Occupy, participants were not taking or trafficking drugs, but expressing social justice, I think we should help them,” he said.

In November last year, Yeung raised eyebrows when he said it was regrettable that the National People’s Congress Standing Committee had interpreted the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, to make “insincere” oath-taking punishable by instant disqualification.

The interpretation was made after two pro-independence lawmakers-elect insulted China as they took their oaths in the Legislative Council last October.

“Does the NPC have such powers? The Basic Law clearly states that it does, but was it necessary to exercise it like this? I have much doubt about that,” he said.

Yeung made the remarks at a graduation ceremony at Caritas Institute of Higher Education in Tseung Kwan O on his first day as coadjutor bishop, during which a group of students held up banners and rainbow flags to protest against his stance on gay rights and other political issues.

Anthony Lam Sui-ki, executive secretary and researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre of the Hong Kong diocese, said he understood that Yeung was a person of “frankness and principle”.

“These are his merits ... He also set high standards for himself,” Lam told the Post. “But it would also make people feel stressed.”

Lam’s view echoed Progressive Lawyers Group convenor Kevin Yam Kin-fung, a Catholic who used his Facebook page to urge his friends to pray for Yeung.

“I understand that he does not have a very good relationship with priests ... so he will need our prayers as he works on people,” he said on Tuesday.

The bishop said: “I know all the priests and I think we [get] along very well … But I take this as a kind of a reminder.”

Yeung was born in Shanghai in December 1945 and moved to Hong Kong when he was four. He was ordained a priest in 1978 at the age of 27.

Just like Tong, Yeung chose the Great Wall as one of the images on his episcopal coat of arms to express his love for the country and the church there.

Asked if he expected Yeung to play a role in mending ties between the Vatican and Beijing, Lam said: “As former vice-premier Qian Qichen once said, China’s ties with the Vatican are an international relationship. The Hong Kong diocese does not have any role in it,” he said.

“If Pope Francis would like to listen to Yeung’s views, I am sure he would love to tell the pontiff. But if the pope does not ask for it, I don’t think Bishop Yeung will interfere.”

Lam believed the internal affairs of the diocese would be Yeung’s top priorities, especially when the number of followers was growing.

“The diocese has not been building new churches in recent years ... as I know it’s a headache for them to buy land at an affordable price to do so,” Lam said.

Lam also hoped that Yeung, as a lecturer at the Holy Spirit Seminary College in Wong Chuk Hang since 1986, would find ways to encourage more young people toconsider joining the priesthood.

Apart from teaching, Yeung obtained two masters degrees in communications and education.

Professor Tam Wai-lun, chairman of Chinese University’s cultural and religious studies department, said that as a highly educated bishop, Yeung was likely to pave the way for the Caritas Institute of Higher Education to become a private university.