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Hong Kong bishop appointment shows pope's preference for religious

Fr. Stephen Chow Fr. Stephen Chow Sau-yan, S.J., who was appointed Bishop of Hong Kong May 17, 2021./ Society of Jesus, Chinese Province

For several informed sources inside the Vatican, the appointment of the Fr. Stephen Chow Sau-yan, a Jesuit, as Bishop of Hong Kong shows both Pope Francis’ way in balancing different positions and his preference for priests coming from a religious order when situations are difficult.

Hong Kong is a Chinese territory transferred from Great Britain to China in 1997. Despite the "One country – two systems” policy, meaning that mainland China was keeping the different, more democratic Hong Kong system once the latter rejoined the "motherland," protests in Hong Kong have been spreading since 2019.

Many citizens protested against the local government decision to push a controversial “security law” bill in 2020, following an equally controversial 2019 extradition law that would allow the extradition of political law breakers to mainland China. The government reaction to protests led to the arrest of prominent Catholic leaders, like media mogul Jimmy Lai.

After the death of Bishop Yeung in January 2019, Pope Francis had to figure out who could be the best person to fit the position of Hong Kong's bishop.

Since the beginning, there were two candidates: Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha, a Franciscan close to the pro-democracy movement, and Fr. Peter Choy, considered close to the authorities of mainland China.

Last year, it seemed that Fr. Choy had made the cut, and the announcement of his appointment as bishop of Hong Kong seemed imminent. The appointment never took place, and according to local Catholic sources familiar with the events, Cardinal John Tong, who led the diocese from 2009 through 2017 and was serving as administrator since Bishop Yeung's death, suggested not to go ahead with the appointment.

The reason was that Fr. Choy appeared to be too much in line with the Chinese government, and thus his appointment could be considered a "slap in the face" of the pro-democratic movement in Hong Kong and to many underground Catholics in China who have not seen any benefits from the temporary agreement between China and the Holy See.

The Pope’s glance then fell on Fr. Chow, a Jesuit provincial. 

Vatican observers say this is not the first time the pontiff chooses a religious priest to bring a religious when things become problematic

The appointment of Fr. Chow seems to follow a pattern. He chose a Franciscan, Fr. Marco Tasca, to succeed Cardinal Bagnasco as Archbishop of Genoa. He chose another Franciscan, Archbishop José Rodriguez Carballo, to be the Congregation secretary for the Consecrated Life. He named a Jesuit, Fr. Antonio Guerrero Alves, to chair the Vatican Secretariat for the Economy. He picked a Franciscan, Cardinal Mauro Gambetti, to be the Archpriest of St. Peter's Basilica.

But the choice of Fr. Chow for Hong Kong has other diplomatic reasons, according to experts speaking for background to CNA: “The Pope chose a very cultivated young Jesuit, whose strong intellectual curriculum is highly appreciated in China. Plus, Fr. Chow has also proved ‘moderate’ when he was a provincial. Indeed his prudent ways were at full display at his first press conference.”

But his supporters claim that his polite manners do not mean the bishop-elect is unaware of how the Chinese government exercises negative pressure over Christians. As a priest he was in charge of the restricted committee to establish a Catholic University in Hong Kong. The project was ambitious. The Jesuits were trying to turn into reality an idea that first occurred to Bishop Francis Xavier Hsu, Bishop of Hong Kong from 1969 to 1973.

The Jesuits had to quit the project in 2015, as Leung Chung-Ying, the pro-China Hong Kong chief executive, change the land use of the area where the university was going to be built. The Jesuits had collected 2 billion Hong Kong dollars donations for the project (some $257 million).

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Fr. Chow, however, was able to keep a moderate position. He has a dialogue with the government, especially as a Jesuit provincial. When the pandemic broke in mainland China, his province sent donations to Hubei, where the pandemic broke, along with the Jesuit District Council of the United States and Canada.

Fr. Chow also admitted he had participated in manifestations to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests. He is considered a quiet person but firm in the faith.

His skills in the educational field will be of help. During the 2019 protests in Hong Kong, Beijing accused the educational system for allowing young students to engage in the pro-democracy movement.

The Catholic Church runs more than 300 schools in Hong Kong. It is now deemed possible that the Chinese government will use the Hong Kong National Security Law to operate intense interventions in educational matters.

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Finally, the Pope chose freely. Although the content of the China – Holy See agreement on the appointment of bishops has not been made public, it seems that Hong Kong is kept out of the agreement.

The Holy See Press Office Bollettino did not specify whether the Bishop-elect Chow was chosen in the framework of the agreement, nor was verbal communication from Vatican officials about that. Three Chinese bishops so far have been appointed in the deal's framework, and Matteo Bruni, the Holy See Press Office director, confirmed in November 2020 that "other processes for the appointment of bishops are underway."

According to one qualified source, the pope could freely choose the bishop of Hong Kong, as it happened in the past. The source maintained that "the Holy See obviously acted prudently before appointing a new bishop, and this is the reason why it took more than two years to find the perfect candidate."

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