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Hong Kong bishop stresses dialogue in troubled region

Bishop Stephen Chow feels dialogue and working with government are crucial to playing the prophetic role as Christians

Hong Kong bishop stresses dialogue in troubled region

Bishop Stephen Chow waves to church members at his episcopal ordination in Hong Kong’s Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception on Dec. 4, 2021. (Photo: Bertha Wang/AFP)

Published: February 24, 2022 02:16 AM GMT

Updated: February 24, 2022 04:02 AM GMT

Jesuit Father Stephen Chow Sau-yan was consecrated bishop of Hong Kong last December after the seat was vacant for nearly three years. It ushered in a ray of hope among Catholics in the Special Administrative Region of China facing political uncertainties and chaos.

During his consecration, the new leader of some 400,000 Catholics in Hong Kong promised to heal the wounds of the deeply polarized city by building bridges.

He has reiterated his priorities as the leader of the Church in Hong Kong in an interview he gave me — the first and most elaborate interview he has given to the media since becoming a bishop. It first appeared in the February issue of the Milan-based Mondo e Missione (World and Mission), a magazine run by the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions (PIME).

Bishop Chow is aware of the socio-political relevance of Hong Kong’s Catholic community despite its numeric size. In fact, several of Hong Kong's leaders on both sides of its political spectrum — pro-government and pro-democracy camps — are either Catholics or have a close association with Catholic institutions such as schools, parishes and organizations.

For example, Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing Chief Executive Carrie Lam is a practicing Catholic who attended the bishop’s consecration ceremony. On the other hand, prominent democracy champions in the city include Catholics Martin Lee, Jimmy Lai and many others who have been jailed since Beijing imposed the national security law on July 1, 2020.

As the Hong Kong Church leader, Bishop Chow needs to tread a fine line in the fractured city. Under the circumstances, his reluctance to give press interviews is understandable. But he agreed to speak with me as a brother in faith in the same mission of evangelization.

I’m not a diplomat; a bishop is not a diplomat. We need to be diplomatic at times. But our primary concern is to discern God’s will and to carry it out

My aim was never to corner him with tricky questions but to help the global Catholic communities to see his situation and understand his priorities as he works to heal the wounds and build bridges among communities in Hong Kong.

His Jesuit upbringing and training, Bishop Chow said, encourage him to work for human dignity and social justice. “I find it unacceptable when basic human dignity is ignored or exploited or sidelined,” he said.

He said a bishop is not a diplomat but needs to be diplomatic at times to carry out God’s will. “I’m not a diplomat; a bishop is not a diplomat. We need to be diplomatic at times. But our primary concern is to discern God’s will and to carry it out.”

He remembered Jesuit Father Alfred Deignan as his mentor who taught him compassion, patience and hope, and Father James Hurley as one who inspired him to engage in human rights work.

Bishop Chow said the Tiananmen Square tragedy of 1989 profoundly affected him and he joined rights group Amnesty International around that time. He is no longer an Amnesty member.

“The incident in 1989 really affected me. It put me in touch with my ethnic identity, with who I am; my plight and the plight of the Chinese people were connected through that incident,” he said.

His reference to Jesuits Fathers Deignan and Hurley shows how Catholicism was shaped in Hong Kong over the past 50 years. Father Deignan (1927-2018) was a widely influential and appreciated educator who served in Hong Kong for 65 years. Father Hurley (1926-2020), who championed social justice, was a missionary in Hong Kong since 1952.

Bishop Chow’s explicit mention of the Tiananmen incident as a turning point of life is also remarkable. Sadly, the Hong Kong administration since 2020 has banned the annual vigil and commemoration for the Tiananmen anniversary at Hong Kong’s Victoria Park.

Bishop Chow says Ignatian spirituality has “a great impact” on him “on how I see God, my relationship with him and God’s relationship with the world. We are sinners, yet loved. That gives us hope! That inner freedom lets us move on. No one is totally indifferent with inner freedom, neither am I.”

He said he accepted the role of the bishop as part of “a process of seeking inner freedom. I didn’t really want to [be a bishop]. But in this process, I was invited to obedience; meaning to let go.”

“Ignatian spirituality broadens my thinking. If spirituality is not incarnated, it remains in the air. It has to connect to who I am.”

Share your vision with your peers … but at the same time, don’t limit yourself to listening to like-minded people, otherwise you will share the same blind spots

Bishop Chow’s education at Harvard University taught him how cultures impact the lives of humans more than they can realize.

A Harvard professor taught him the meaning of culture “and how it impacts us. Culture affects us more than we are aware of. Culture is very subversive. We educators are co-constructors with the young people we serve.”

Bishop Chow wants to engage with young people through dialogue as they are “more receptive than adults or older because they are more willing to try out things and can see a future of possibilities; they have less baggage, so to speak.”

He would often ask young people to be like a giraffe “with feet planted on the ground and a vision looking to the future. We cannot always have all our feet on the ground at one time; when the giraffe moves, one foot is in the air, so we need vision. We have to keep vision and context together.”

Young people, mostly university students, were spearheading the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. But Bishop Chow wanted young people “not to look at the walls only but to look at the future: how you want Hong Kong to be like in future.”

“Share your vision with your peers … but at the same time, don’t limit yourself to listening to like-minded people, otherwise you will share the same blind spots. You need to listen to people who are very different from you, who even don't agree with you.”

The Hong Kong bishop says he won’t leave elderly people behind.

“The young can help the older members of the community. The young are the ones who give hope and energy to the elderly. Since 2019 some elderly felt that the young people were insensitive — and some of them were. The two groups can come together and talk, share and help each other,” he said.

As educators, we still hope that our students can think for themselves and have multiple perspectives and appreciate differences

Bishop Chow said the introduction of national security law marked a new era in the political history of Hong Kong.

“We have to be careful; we don’t want to get our children, our students or the school into trouble. We have to protect our students. As educators, we still hope that our students can think for themselves and have multiple perspectives and appreciate differences,” he said.

Elders should help younger generations know “what is legal and what is not legal” and at the same time “to help them think.” The younger generation should develop a healthy conscience despite ideological differences — whether rigid conservative or neurotically liberal, he said.

He said he wanted to help “our young people think deeper in this age. But it is a difficult task. Veteran teachers have emigrated. Even social workers and psychologists have moved away. This is the difficult reality we have to face.”

Despite the difficult circumstances, Bishop Chow is hopeful about the future of missionary presence in Hong Kong.

“I really believe that foreign missionaries have a place in Hong Kong. We appreciate what they have done and we do our best to keep them here. Hong Kong has to remain an international city, with missionaries and expatriates.”

Bishop Chow believes it is essential to have dialogue and work with the government to play the prophetic role as Christians.

“We have to work with the government and find whatever space we can. But, in humility and a spirit of dialogue, we can still say what we think, as we are here as prophets.”

Father Gianni Criveller of the Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions is dean of studies and a teacher at PIME International Missionary School of Theology in Milan, Italy. He taught in Greater China for 27 years and is a lecturer in mission theology and the history of Christianity in China at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Philosophy and Theology in Hong Kong.

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