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Catholic Church

Shock as Vatican brings Cardinal John Tong out of retirement to be acting head of Hong Kong diocese after death of bishop – blocking Occupy supporter Joseph Ha Chi-shing

  • Tong dismisses suggestion Vatican stepped in to avoid Occupy supporter Reverend Joseph Ha being elected acting bishop, something that could offend Beijing
PUBLISHED : Monday, 07 January, 2019, 10:43pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 08 January, 2019, 12:19am

The Vatican has brought former bishop John Tong Hon out of retirement to serve as acting head of Hong Kong’s 400,000-strong Catholic community in a surprising and unprecedented move after his successor’s death last week.

Cardinal Tong himself expressed “shock” as he revealed on Monday that he was appointed on Saturday as apostolic administrator, which would grant him the same powers as the bishop who would eventually replace the late Michael Yeung Ming-cheung.

The Vatican unexpectedly stepped in before the local diocese could elect an acting bishop, who would have had fewer powers. Auxiliary bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, a supporter of the Occupy movement for greater democracy, had been tipped for the role.

“When I heard of this appointment, I was shocked,” 80-year-old Tong said at a press briefing together with Ha, adding that he had never heard of such an arrangement before.

But he dismissed suggestions that the Vatican could be seeking to avoid offending Beijing by heading off Ha’s election.

Tong said that he did not believe it was a political decision by the Vatican, and that had more to do with his 25 years of experience serving the diocese, as well as the fact that it had been less than two years since he retired.

“I know this is a transitional arrangement,” he said. “[The appointment] should last a very short time.”

Tong did not expect to end up continuing as the final candidate for the job, noting that the canon law of the church required cardinals to retire from many duties after they reached 80.

Hong Kong Catholics mourn their leader Michael Yeung, dead at 73

“I don’t know how long we need to wait for the new bishop, but I pray the new bishop will come as soon as possible,” he said.

Ha noted that an apostolic administrator was usually appointed during critical moments, such as that facing the diocese now.

It comes at a crucial junction in relations between the Vatican and Beijing.

Last September, they signed a “provisional agreement” on the ordination of bishops, which both sides want control over. The deal, which reportedly allows Beijing to propose bishops for the Vatican to appoint, could end decades of estrangement.

Yeung, who succeeded Tong in August 2017, died of liver failure on Thursday at the age of 73.

Asked whether he might have been sidelined because he did not have Beijing’s blessing, Ha replied: “When we talk about blessing, we do not see it as preference by someone with political power. I feel blessed all the time by the Lord.”

But retired Baptist University scholar Dr Chan Sze-chi, who specialises in Christian studies, suggested that the Vatican did not want to risk offending Beijing by picking Ha.

“The Vatican may want to buy time to find a suitable candidate who is also acceptable to Beijing. So it chose to appoint John Tong as the interim head,” Chan said.

City officials and Catholics pay tribute to late bishop Michael Yeung

The day after Yeung’s death, eight senior board members of the church administration met to discuss the election of an acting bishop to serve until the Vatican chose a new one.

But Ha, who attended the meeting, said the board eventually decided to focus on the arrangement of Yeung’s funeral first, rather than go into details about the election.