Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan has said he is prepared for the difficult task of uniting the Diocese of Hong Kong.
Bishop Chow was consecrated the ninth bishop of Hong Kong on Saturday; his installation brings stability to the leadership of the diocese for the first time in nearly three years, after the premature death of his predecessor, Bishop Michael Yeung in January 2019.
Chow was consecrated and installed by the diocese’s apostolic administrator, and former Bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon. Also participating in the Mass was Tong’s immediate predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen.
Speaking briefly after the Mass at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the newly installed bishop, a member of the Society of Jesus, said that he hoped to “foster healing” in his “beloved hometown.”
“I’m quite aware that it is not easy, given the painful damages that different parties have experienced in their own ways in the past two years,” Chow said, in apparent reference to both the ravages of the coronavirus pandemic and the deteriorating political situation in the Special Administrative Region.
Tensions in Hong Kong have been high since 2019, when an attempt by the local government to pass a law clearing the way for the extradition of Hong Kongers accused of certain crimes to the mainland triggered a year-long wave of mass protests which brought parts of the city, including its international airport, to a standstill.
Local Catholics have been divided, along with the wider population, between those sympathetic to Hong Kong becoming more politically integrated with the mainland and those committed to preserving it’s democratic institutions and civil liberties, supposedly guaranteed under the terms of the 1997 handover from Great Britain.
The Vatican’s initial selection to lead the diocese following the death of Bishop Yeung was Hong Kong auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha, had his appointment withdrawn prior to a public announcement after he was pictured at the front of one of the pro-democracy demonstrations. The Vatican’s second preferred candidate, diocesan vicar general Fr. Peter Choy Wai-man, was also rescinded over concerns he was too close to the mainland government and would prove unacceptable to the local Catholic community and clergy.
Although the extradition law was dropped, the protests, which prompted an overwhelming police response, cleared the way for a new National Security Law on the territory, which came into force in July last year.
The law, which was imposed on Hong Kong by the mainland government and which criminalised swaths of public speech previously protected by the Basic Law of Hong Kong, has been used to arrest and imprison pro-democracy politicians, campaigners, and journalists, many of them Catholics.
Earlier this year, Catholic businessman and media owner Jimmy Lai was sentenced to spend a total of 14 months in prison for attending an authorized prayer vigil, and for allowing his newspaper, the now shuttered Apple Daily, to print articles critical of the government — the coverage was found by the court to “invite foreign interference” in Hong Kong’s affairs.
Convicted at the same time as Lai for similar crimes was Yeung Sum, the former leader of the Democratic Party, and Lee Cheuk-yan, who served on Hong Kong’s Legislative Council from 1998-2016.
Last month, Lai was back in court after the government charged Lai with encouraging Hong Kongers to participate in a banned Tiananmen Square Massacre memorial vigil held last year. Prior to 2020, Hong Kong was the only Chinese territory where it was permissible to mark the 1989 killing of hundreds of pro-reform protestors by the government in Beijing.
In his initial press conference following the announcement of his appointment in May, Chow indicated that he had also attended a memorial service for the event in 2020, even though it was banned by the authorities, but acknowledged that as bishop he would likely be unable to do so in the future.
“There are many ways to commemorate: in the past I went to a public meeting. But there are times when I can't go there,” he said in May. “So, I pray for China and for all those who died in 1989.” At that time, Chow also acknowledged the political crackdown on civil liberties in the diocese, saying that “religious freedom is a fundamental human right.”
“We would like to remember it in our dialogues with the government, so that it is not forgotten.”
During his time as administrator of the diocese, Cardinal Tong warned local clergy to steer clear of politics, writing to tell them that “the homily is not meant to convey the preacher’s personal views (such as his own view on a social or political issue) but God’s message.”
Catholic schools in the diocese have also been told to ensure that teachers “foster the correct values on national identity” and ensure respect for Chinese national symbols in Catholic schools, including the Chinese flag and national anthem.
Hong Kong Catholics have repeatedly spoken of divisions within the local Church, and on Saturday, Chow reiterated his intention to foster healing and communion, both within the local Catholic community, and among wider Hong Kong society.
Many are very pro-democracy, pro-freedom in that sense, especially the young. But many others, the older generation especially, are proudly Chinese and are very happy to support the mainland government in principle.”
“In the middle are many Hong Kongers, and many Hong Kong Catholics, who are simply afraid of the situation; they see the tensions mounting and worry they will be caught between the hammer and the anvil,” the priest said.
Bishop Chow, 62, was ordained a priest in the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits, in July 1994.
Born in Hong Kong, he attended a secondary school staffed by Irish Jesuits before he enrolled at the University of Minnesota as an undergraduate. Chow earned a graduate at Minnesota in educational psychology before he entered the Society of Jesus in 1984. His novitative was in Dublin.
After he was ordained a priest, Chow earned a master's degree in organizational development at Loyola University of Chicago, and in 2006 finished a doctorate at Harvard University in psychology and human development.
As a priest, Chow served as supervisor of Hong Kong's Wah Yah college, the secondary school from which he had graduated, until he became Jesuit provincial superior for China in 2017.