Catholic Church in Hong Kong to recruit more married men to serve needy, top leader says
Diocesan official notes encouraging young to seek vocation a priority too
The Hong Kong Catholic Church will recruit more married men to reach out to the needy as it encourages more young people to join the priesthood, a top leader of its 389,000-strong diocese has said.
While the move aligns with Pope Francis’s appeal earlier this year to bring in married men to address the problems of a shortage of priests, local church leaders said their push was inspired by a different reason.
Vicar General Reverend Dominic Chan Chi-ming also said the church in Hong Kong was not short of priests. However, in recent years only a few people have been ordained annually, while the number of followers has grown relatively quickly.
According to the diocese, the number of Catholics in the city surged by 60 per cent from 242,500 in 1997 to 389,000 last year. But during that period, the number of priests declined by 10 per cent, from 326 to about 290 last year. And the ranks of Catholic brothers and sisters also fell.
“In terms of sacraments, we wouldn’t say we are short of priests,” Chan said. “We need to look at our followers who are very active, compared with those in Taiwan.”
The Catholic Church requires its priests to remain celibate. But since the late 1960s, married men have been ordained as “permanent deacons” in Europe and the Americas to help priests in their ministry.
Chan said while Hong Kong was the first Asian diocese to ordain permanent deacons in 1997, the move stemmed from the church wanting to perform more outreach and not leaving the task to priests alone.
“Without deacons, the priests had to do everything, just like Father Franco Mella had to take to the streets,” Chan explained, in a reference to the long-time activist who has fought for the rights of mainland families in the city.
“Priests were ordained to host sacraments ... while the deacons are servants for the weak.”
Since 1997, the Hong Kong diocese has ordained 28 men, mostly middle-aged and married, as permanent deacons. They had to undergo years of theological training before being tasked either on a full or part-time basis to minister to workers, students and married couples as well as visit prisons and hospitals.
Chan believed the problems faced by the poor, families, and migrant workers showed there was “considerable room in which deacons could work”.
“A lot of families such as those living in subdivided units are in misery,” he said. “Many professionals also feel empty in their heart ... and the deacons understand them.”
The city’s latest official figures revealed the number of impoverished Hongkongers hit a record high last year, with 1.35 million of the city’s 7.35 million residents living below the official poverty line.
Alex Kwok Chi-keung, a retired teacher who became a permanent deacon in 2015, said he enjoyed helping workers fight for their rights and apply for government allowances and subsidies.
“There have been more ethnic minorities, and they are facing lots of difficulties,” Kwok said. “The government’s forms are also too complicated.”
Cecilia Ng, wife of a permanent deacon, said deacons and their wives helped priests in counselling couples facing marriage problems, especially women.
“Followers like to talk to priests, and deacons can follow up,” Ng said. “I’m sure experienced couples can help resolve disagreements and differences in marriage.”
On recruiting young people, Chan suggested the diocese would like to see more people join the priesthood, especially the young.
He described becoming a priest as a calling from God, and the church’s job as helping people discern what their calling or vocation is.
“Many people accuse the young of being rebellious, but did they listen to their voice?” Chan asked.
“The coming year will be the diocese’s ‘year of youth’ ... We will help them discern their way ahead as they stand at a crossroads – whether they want to be priests, deacons or get married.”
In light of Reverend Michael Yeung Ming-cheung being named Hong Kong’s new bishop in August, Catholic followers and academics expected him to find ways to encourage more young people to consider joining the priesthood.