In his first interview since he was ordained to lead the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong, Bishop Stephen Chow Sau-yan underlined the importance of protecting human dignity.
“I find it unacceptable for human dignity to be ignored, trampled upon, or eliminated entirely. God gave us this dignity when he created us in his image and likeness. And therefore it is universal because it comes from the love of God,” Chow said, according to the Italian magazine Mondo e Missione (World and Mission).
Bishop Chow spoke to the magazine published by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME) at a time when many foreign missionaries are worried about their future in Hong Kong due to a recent crackdown on freedom of expression.
“I truly believe that missionaries have a place in the Hong Kong Church. We appreciate their role and what they have done, and we will do our best to keep them here,” Chow said.
Hong Kong has been a hub of Christian missionary activity in East Asia since the mid-1800s. Following the handover from British rule in 1997, the city has remained a diverse metropolis with roughly 700,000 expatriates living in Hong Kong, out of a total population of around 7.5 million people.
“Hong Kong must continue to be an international city,” Chow underlined.
“As religious, we must learn to work with the government and to find as much space as possible. But that does not mean we can no longer be critical. We are here as prophets, but with the humility of dialogue,” he added.
Though he was reluctant at first to accept the appointment as a bishop, Chow said that in the process, he was “invited to obedience, which means abandoning oneself.”
The 62-year-old was consecrated as a bishop in Hong Kong’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 4. More than 6,000 people tuned in live to watch Chow’s consecration Mass on YouTube.
“I do not live by public opinion. Otherwise I would not be free to discern God's will and have inner freedom. Mine is a balancing act and I find this stimulating,” Chow said.
He explained that he does not see himself as a diplomat because he is a bishop and that is a distinct role.
“I am not a diplomat; a bishop is not that. Sure, sometimes we have to be diplomatic, but my main concern is discerning God’s will,” he said.
Reflecting back on his formation and education, the Jesuit bishop said that Ignatian spirituality shaped his relationship with God.
He cited the late Father James Hurley, a Jesuit priest who was a founding member of Amnesty International in Hong Kong, as an influence on his thinking about human rights.
Hurley, originally from Ireland, spent over 50 years as a Jesuit missionary in Hong Kong. At the time of his death in 2020, Chow said: “Many of us have been awakened by his passion for social justice.”
“The incidents of 1989 had a great impact on me. They put me in touch with my identity as a Chinese person,” Chow told Mondo e Missione.
On June 4, 1989, tanks rolled into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square and military forces opened fire on the university students and other citizens calling for democratic reforms.
“My personal story and that of the Chinese people were linked by that event,” he said.
Born in Hong Kong in 1959, Chow went on to study in the United States, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from the University of Minnesota, before entering the Society of Jesus in Dublin, Ireland, at the age of 25.
Chow returned to Hong Kong in 1988, a year before the Chinese government’s crackdown on student protesters in Beijing culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre.
With a master’s degree from Loyola University in Chicago and a doctorate in education from Harvard, Chow said that he believed that education and culture help to build up society.
“The Church should also be like this: working with the new generations to build the future together,” he said.
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Chow mentioned that one challenge Hong Kong faces is that many experienced teachers have emigrated.
“It is not easy to hire teachers and principals. Several professionals, such as social workers and psychologists, have also left. This is another reality that we have to face,” he said.
When asked about his message for young people in Hong Kong disappointed by the current political situation, Chow said: “Don’t look at the walls, look toward the future.”
“I also tell young people to imagine how they want the Church, the world, our Hong Kong to be, and to share their vision with others, not just listening to like-minded ones,” Chow said.
The bishop said he hoped that the Catholic community in Hong Kong would have more dialogue with young people to “find the way to do things in a good and productive way.”
“In the many years spent abroad … I have learned the importance of culture. At Harvard, in particular, I learned how it impacts our lives. That is why I now attach great importance to what we are creating. Culture can be subversive. And then there is the idea that reality is not a given, but is created; and we build it together,” he said.
Courtney Mares is a Rome Correspondent for Catholic News Agency. A graduate of Harvard University, she has reported from news bureaus on three continents and was awarded the Gardner Fellowship for her work with North Korean refugees.
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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.