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Catholic Church

Hong Kong bishop brought out of retirement by Pope ‘mainly over China relations’

  • Apostolic administrator post mostly meant for younger promoted clerics or for handling of crises and scandals
  • Vatican-Beijing relations have been rocky until recent historic agreement on bishop appointments
PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 8:05am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 January, 2019, 10:10am

Pope Francis had the Vatican’s relationship with China on his mind, when the Holy See brought Hong Kong’s former bishop John Tong Hon out of retirement to serve as acting head of the city’s 394,000-strong Catholic community, according to fellow worshippers and commentators.

The Vatican’s surprise move on Monday of appointing a retired bishop as the diocese’s “apostolic administrator”, broke with past practice in Hong Kong and Asia. The post in such regions is usually meant for younger promoted clerics or the handling of crises or allegations related to church affairs.

While the move sparked speculation on whether it was politically motivated to block a bishop who was sympathetic to Occupy protesters, others have called for calm and not to look into sinister motives.

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Among them was Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Tong’s liberal predecessor, who issued a statement on Tuesday, dismissing critics’ suggestion that the appointment of Tong contravened the Catholic Code of Canon Law.

“The apostolic administrator will help the Vatican find a new bishop for Hong Kong ... and it would be more convenient and neutral for Tong to take up that role as he will not become the next bishop,” Zen said.

It would be more convenient and neutral for Tong to take up that role as he will not become the next bishop
Cardinal Joseph Zen

Tong, who played a role in efforts by the Vatican and Beijing to secure a breakthrough in bilateral ties, was appointed as acting head, after his successor Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, 73, died last Thursday from illness. Local Catholics expect the Vatican to appoint a new bishop for Hong Kong within six months.

Monday’s announcement came just months after China and the Vatican reached a historic agreement in September on the appointment of mainland bishops, paving the way for rapprochement between Beijing and the Holy See, which cut diplomatic ties in 1951.

Under the Catholic Code of Canon Law, a diocese would choose a Vicar Capitular, or acting bishop, when the leadership position is left vacant.

The diocese was originally expected to elect auxiliary bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, a supporter of the Occupy movement for greater democracy, as acting bishop last Friday. The Pope would then appoint a new bishop for Hong Kong later this year.

However, after a leadership meeting on Friday, Ha said the diocese had decided to focus first on Yeung’s funeral on January 11.

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Three days after that, the Vatican unexpectedly stepped in and named Tong as an apostolic administrator. He will lead the diocese “until further notice from” the Vatican, according to a notice issued by diocesan chancellor Lawrence Lee Len.

Civic Party chairman Alan Leong Kah-kit, a devout Catholic, said he was “utterly disappointed” by the decision.

“It was out of the ordinary, to say the least,” Leong said. “[The Vatican] wanted to be thrice as sure that there will be no hiccup ... when the Vatican-China relationship is in such a critical, sensitive moment.”

Under Canon 371 of the Catholic code, the Vatican can appoint an apostolic administrator to lead Catholic communities, such as those not yet recognised as dioceses, out of “special and particularly grave reasons”.

[The Vatican] wanted to be thrice as sure that there will be no hiccup ... when the Vatican-China relationship is in such a critical, sensitive moment
Alan Leong, Civic Party

But it was rare for the Vatican to appoint a retired bishop to the post in a long-established diocese like Hong Kong.

Last year, the Vatican appointed at least eight apostolic administrators across Asia, according to a database by Union of Catholic Asian News, an agency covering Catholic matters across Asia.

Yet, those cases – which included five in India, two in Vietnam and one in the Philippines – involved promoting auxiliary bishops locally or appointing a senior or retired bishop from another region, to help a Catholic community deal with retirement issues, infighting or scandals.

For example, Pope Francis had appointed Bishop Jacob Manathodath to replace the cardinal of the Syro-Malabar church in India, after the diocese was accused of dubious land deals, and had its two auxiliary bishops suspended from administrative duty.

The Hong Kong diocese, established in 1946, had in the past followed the rule of electing acting bishops when a bishop died before his successor was named by the Pope.

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Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the Divinity School in Chinese University, also said he believed the Vatican’s relationship with China played a major role in Tong’s appointment.

“Ha supported the Occupy movement, fought for democracy, and attended June 4 vigils. Beijing would not consider him a friendly bishop,” Ying said.

He added: “It seems that the Vatican has considered the China factor in its plans. It was not only about appointing an official bishop for Hong Kong.

“It seems the Vatican did not even want the acting position, or transitional arrangement for the top post to cause a hindrance to the China-Vatican relationship.”