Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong met with Pope Francis on Thursday, as the Vatican gears up for a renewal of its controversial “pastoral” agreement with the People’s Republic of China.
Chow’s papal audience was announced by the Holy See’s press office March 17. While the Vatican has not commented on the reason for the meeting, sources close to the diocesan chancery in Hong Kong told The Pillar that the bishop has also met with Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Secretary of State.
The bishop’s trip to Rome follows the removal of key diplomats stationed in Hong Kong and Taiwan in recent weeks.
The Holy See has full diplomatic relations with the Republic of China, Taiwan, but, for decades, its mission there has been headed by a chargé d'affaires. Last month, the holder of that position, Msgr. Araldo Catalan, was transferred to become the new apostolic nuncio to Rwanda.
Just days later, Msgr. Javier Corona was reassigned to become the papal ambassador to Congo. Corona had led the Holy See’s diplomatic mission in Hong Kong, which moved its archives off-island to the Philippines more than a year ago, following security concerns and repeated cyber attacks..
Both officials have yet to be replaced.
While reopening the Holy See’s embassy in Beijing, closed since the Communist government formally expelled the Church in 1949, has been a long-treasured goal of the Secretariat of State, the Vatican has dismissed media reports that the Holy See could be gearing up towards a more formal diplomatic relationship with the mainland as “speculation.”
However, Chow’s trip to Rome, the first since his installation as Bishop of Hong Kong in December, also comes as the Secretariat of State ponders the future of the Vatican-China deal, first agreed in 2018 and renewed in 2020 for a further two years.
That agreement, which is set to expire in October, was intended to unify the underground Catholic Church on the mainland with the state-sponsored Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, granting Chinese Catholics a measure of civil acceptance in exchange for government involvement in the appointment of bishops.
The deal has attracted heavy criticism, with many Catholics and Church watchers questioning the suitability of granting the Chinese Communist Party a say in episcopal appointments while the government continues its genocidal campaign against the Uighur population of Xinxiang Province.
Several Catholic bishops and priests have refused to register with the government, pointing out that doing so requires affirming state supremacy over the Church, and Communist Party dogma above Church teaching.
Those clerics have been subject to a campaign of harassment, arrest and detention, with some bishops disappearing altogether.
Nearly four years into the deal’s implementation, the appointment process for bishops in China has not become noticeably more smooth for Rome: dozens of dioceses remain without bishops, and the Chinese government has taken to announcing the appointment and consecration of its own episcopal candidates, seemingly without the input or approval of Rome.
Before his appointment as Bishop of Hong Kong, Chow, a Hong Kong native educated in the West, was the provincial superior of the Society of Jesus for China, and he was selected to lead the diocese as someone uniquely placed to understand the complicated relationship between Rome, Hong Kong, and Beijing. And it is likely that Rome would solicit his input on negotiations ahead of any decision to renew the Vatican-China deal.
While it is unlikely that the Holy See will comment on the content of Chow’s meeting with the pope, or with other curial officials, the timing of his visit to Rome suggests at least some level of urgency.
Hong Kong is battling a violent resurgence of the coronavirus, with case levels and mortality rates peaking above levels seen in Western cities at the height of the pandemic. Apart from Chow’s likely pastoral imperative to be close to the people of the diocese at this time, travel in and out of Hong Kong is currently highly restricted, making his appearance in Rome all the more remarkable.
Apart from the pandemic, the political situation in Hong Kong has steadily deteriorated since the imposition of the National Security Law in 2020. Pro-democracy politicians and journalists, including several prominent Catholics, have been jailed for various “crimes” related to free speech, and the diocese has come under pressure to ensure that Catholic priests and teachers in Catholic schools stay out of politics and promote “national values.”
In January, a state-owned newspaper in Hong Kong launched a blistering series of articles against Cardinal Joseph Zen, the 90-year old former Bishop of Hong Kong, accusing him of using his status as a clergyman to “disrupt” life in Hong Kong and complaining that “it is difficult for the government to regulate or eliminate these religious groups or individuals, despite the fact that they have committed many crimes.”
The series of editorials against Zen were widely interpreted in Hong Kong as a warning to Chow, who, in a recent interview, had declared that it is “unacceptable when human dignity is ignored, trampled upon or discarded.”
In the interview, published the previous week, Chow also noted that “culture can be subversive,” and he touted the importance of the Church’s education mission and work in schools.