The Bishop-elect of Hong Kong, Fr. Stephen Chow, SJ, said the Church in Hong Kong needs to overcome internal divisions and preserve its religious freedom. Chow spoke Tuesday during a press conference, shortly after his appointment was announced by the Vatican on Monday.
Hong Kong “is a place I really love, my birthplace and the place where I have grown up,” Chow said. The bishop-elect also confirmed that he had initially declined the appointment, citing his initial view that the bishop should be a priest of the Hong Kong diocese.
“One of the concerns I had was that the bishop of the diocese should better come from [among] the diocesan priests… and I didn’t feel the call in myself to be bishop.”
“After I discussed and discerned with my Father General in Rome, and we believed that it was not the time for me, not the call, so I said ‘no’. That was back in December. Not Lent, as some reports said.”
On Monday, The Pillar reported that Chow had declined the appointment as recently as Lent, 2021.
“After a couple of tries, we just said no, this is not for me, and we believed someone from the diocesan priests can come up. Anyway, this isn’t about me, really, in the end.”
“As a Jesuit, I owe my obedience to the Holy Father, and finally the Holy Father wrote something in his handwriting that he agreed that I should be the bishop and I read the letter — in Italian, but I don’t know Italian OK, it was translated for me — so for me that was a sign, enough of a sign, that I should take up [the role].”
The diocese has been without a permanent leader for more than two years, since the January 2019 death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung.
Fr. Chow has been provincial of the Chinese province of the Society of Jesus since January 2018. He has held several appointments in the Hong Kong diocese, including a term on the diocesan presbyteral council from 2013 to 2017, and membership of the diocesan educational council since 2017.
Chow’s episcopal consecration is expected to be held on December 4, later this year. Until then, the diocese confirmed, Cardinal John Tong Hon will continue in his role as apostolic administrator.
The bishop-elect acknowledged that there were deep divisions between different Catholic communities in the diocese, including between younger Catholics, often more closely involved with pro-democracy movements, and older Catholics less eager for the Church to be seen as politically antagonistic to the government.
“The question is how to walk with young people, to keep them company with empathy, so we could walk closer together again,”
Asked about his desire to be a bridge between the different communities in the diocese, Chow said “Now I have to put my words into my actions.”
“It’s not easy, I have been trying to do that, even in schools.”
“Two years ago, in Hong Kong, my school community was much divided. So how to bring healing… it takes a lot. And I’m not saying I have been successful, but I am doing my best, and listening, empathy, is really very important.”
Chow said on Tuesday that the Church is and will remain independent from state control.
“Religious freedom is a fundamental human right,” he said. “We would like to remember it in our dialogues with the government, so that it is not forgotten.”
In the last two years, Hong Kong has seen widespread protests against mainland interference in the special administrative region’s government, beginning with a 2019 extradition law, which would have allowed Hong Kongers accused of certain crimes to be deported to the mainland. That proposed law was abandoned after a years of widespread protests and unrest, but in July last year, the Beijing government imposed a sweeping National Security Law on Hong Kong, criminalizing many forms of free speech.
Several prominent Catholics, including billionaire businessman and publisher Jimmy Lai, have since been arrested and imprisoned for attending demonstrations.
However, Chow did confirm he had attended a public commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre last year. Hong Kong is the only Chinese territory where such events have been permitted. Last year crowds gathered near Hong Kong’s Victoria park to commemorate the deaths of thousands of protestors who had gathered to demand government reform in Beijing in 1989, despite police efforts to cancel the annual event.
Chow did not say if he would attend a similar event this year, noting that it may depend on legal requirements.
“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. “So, I pray for China and for all those who died in 1989.”
Chow declined to comment on the situation of the Church on the mainland during his press conference, appearing to underline that the Diocese of Hong Kong was a different case.
“I don't think it is wise for me to comment on these issues related to China, which I don't understand much,” he said. “I don't have enough information and knowledge.”
Chow added that he was not “afraid” to comment on the situation on the mainland but said “I believe that being prudent is a virtue.”