Who Will Be the Next Bishop of Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has been without a permanent bishop since the death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung in January 2019.
HONG KONG — Catholics in Hong Kong are reeling after several pro-democracy figures were sentenced last week to prison terms for their peaceful resistance to the Chinese Communist Party and its efforts to crack down on Hong Kongers’ freedom.
In the wake of the sentences, one observer said this week that this would be an ideal time for Pope Francis to appoint Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing, who has publicly supported the island’s pro-democracy movement, as bishop of the diocese.
“Bishop Ha, a Franciscan, is widely loved and respected in Hong Kong as a pastoral leader who cares for his flock, and a shepherd who combines wisdom and courage, to stand true to his values as a religious leader without being a firebrand,” Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chair of the monitoring group Hong Kong Watch, wrote in an April 18 op-ed at UCA News.
“If I were in the Vatican, this would be precisely the moment to promote Bishop Ha. To appoint as bishop of Hong Kong someone who is courageous but not reckless, who has the trust of his flock but has proven in the past two years his ability to lie low if required, would be exactly the right exertion of ecclesial and papal authority required. Whether the Vatican will have that courage remains to be seen.”
Hong Kong has been without a permanent bishop since the death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung in January 2019. John Cardinal Tong Hon, who retired as Bishop of Hong Kong in 2017, has served as the diocese’ apostolic administrator since then.
In 2019, CNA learned that the Vatican had resolved to appoint Bishop Ha to lead the diocese.
While the appointment was being processed, however, Bishop Ha was publicly seen at the front of pro-democracy demonstrations against an extradition law, and his nomination was reversed before a public announcement could be made.
During January 2020, CNA reported that the Vatican had selected Fr. Peter Choy Wai-man, a vicar general of the diocese, as Hong Kong’s new bishop but had decided to delay the announcement of Fr. Choy’s appointment indefinitely. Some in the diocese have voiced concerns about Fr. Choy’s closeness to state authorities.
The Vatican has not announced any current candidates for the position.
Hong Kong is a special administrative region of China. Hong Kongers have historically enjoyed freedom of worship and evangelization, while in mainland China, by contrast, there is a long history of persecution for Christians who run afoul of the government.
With the 2020 passage of new “national security laws,” the Chinese government seized more power to suppress pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, which it sees as a direct challenge to its power.
Hong Kong’s National Security Law is broad in its definitions of terrorism, sedition, and foreign collusion. Under the law, a person who is convicted of the aforementioned crimes will receive a minimum of 10 years in prison, with the possibility of a life sentence.
On April 16, authorities in Hong Kong sentenced several Catholic pro-democracy figures, including lawyer Martin Lee and media tycoon Jimmy Lai, to prison sentences under the new security law.
Lai, whose publication Apple Daily is consistently critical of the government, was given a 12-month sentence, while Lee— the founder of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy party– was given an 11-month suspended sentence. Both are significantly below the maximum sentences they could have faced under the security law.
Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who led the Diocese of Hong Kong from 2002-2009 and is a critic of the Vatican’s relationship to the Chinese government, has several times signaled his support for Bishop Ha.
Cardinal Zen tweeted Rogers’ op-ed April 19, urging that people write to Cardinal Luis Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, presumably to urge the appointment of Bishop Ha.
The cardinal referred to Rogers’ statement that “where China is concerned, the Vatican prefers to play politics and diplomacy rather than exercise its moral leadership,” and mentioned an interview given by Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States at the Secretariat of State.
Archbishop Gallagher had last month told The Standard, a Hong Kong daily held to be politically pro-Beijing, that “I don’t think that ‘grandstanding’ statements” from the Vatican on democracy in Hong Kong “can be terribly effective.”
“I think you have to ask what effect [a statement] is going to have? Is it going to produce a positive change, or does it make the situation more complicated for the local church and for relations with the Holy See? At the moment, we feel that’s the right approach,” he stated.
In 2018, the Vatican reached an agreement with the Chinese government on the appointment of bishops. The terms of the agreement, which was renewed in October 2020 for two more years, have never been publicly revealed.
The agreement was undertaken to help unite the state-run Church and the underground Church. An estimated 6 million Catholics are registered with the Chinese Communist Party, while several million are estimated to belong to unregistered Catholic communities which have remained loyal to the Holy See.
According to new rules set to take effect on May 1, 2021, the state-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association will be responsible for selecting episcopal candidates. The candidates will then be “approved and consecrated by the Chinese Catholic Bishops’ Conference.” The rules reportedly do not mention any role of the Vatican in approving bishops.
According to Cardinal Zen, Christians in China have continued to be persecuted and harassed by authorities, “despite the agreement.”