CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Saturday, 9 December 2017

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There is a time to step down

HONG KONG (SE): After 21 years as a bishop, John Cardinal Tong Hon officially stepped down from his current position as bishop of Hong Kong on August 1, when the Vatican announced that Pope Francis had accepted his offer of retirement.
 
Cardinal Tong was ordained a bishop together with his predecessor, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun, on 13 September 1996, during the time of John Baptist Cardinal Wu Cheng-chung.
 
A teacher of dogmatic theology at the Holy Spirit Seminary College in Aberdeen since 1970, he later became the rector, a position he held up until he became the bishop of Hong Kong.
 
But as an auxiliary bishop, he also combined his new duties with the great love of his life that had occupied his energy for many years—supporting the suffering Church in China.
 
He had also been instrumental in the setting up of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Aberdeen as a place for research on the Church in the mainland, which was just beginning to emerge into the open out of the shadows of its hidden presence during the Cultural Revolution, and early photographs show a youthful-looking Father Tong hard at work in his office.
 
He took what opportunities he could find to travel into the mainland in the days before glittering airports and comfortable hotels, quietly contacting priests and bishops, at times helping to facilitate the difficult process of reconciliation with the Holy See, while at the same time building up a vast network of relationships and knowledge on the workings of what had been an almost invisible Church for well over a decade and a persecuted one for some 30 years.
 
Cardinal Tong worked hard at sharing his knowledge, helping to set up a regular publication to share in-depth analysis on the state of the Church and religion in China.
 
Although first published under the title Ding, a traditional vessel used by ancient sages to offer sacrifice, this was quickly changed to its English translation, Tripod, which still comes out under this name to this very day.
 
Throughout his life as a priest, Cardinal Tong has seen Hong Kong as a Bridge Church with China. On 27 February 2013, in a letter to Pope Benedict XVI upon his retirement, he thanked him for his support of this role.
 
He described building bridges as a priority challenge for all members of the diocese, as a contribution from Hong Kong to the effort of healing the rift between people in the Church in China and affecting reconciliation among the people.
 
He said that Hong Kong has a lot to offer in terms of helping to provide good formation and he encouraged people to pray for Catholics on the mainland in this time of their need.
 
He had been a constant advocate of dialogue between the Vatican and Beijing and called on people to pray for the grace of conversion to be accepted by those not in communion with the Church, so that community wounds may be healed.
 
With his naturally generous spirit he responded to the international Church’s requests for information on the situation of the Church in China, on one occasion agreeing to spend almost two weeks in Australia to lecture and spend leisure time with local priests.
 
For a man who had recently taken on new responsibilities as a bishop, it was a generous response indeed.
 
But such is his love for the people of the Church in China and he painted a vastly more human face of its reality for his audience Down Under that up until then had mostly only been fed the stereotypes, propaganda and hearsay of the not well informed.
 
It is this same naturally generous spirit that has marked Cardinal Tong’s ministry, first as a priest, then as an auxiliary and later as the bishop of the city.
 
In many ways a reluctant bishop, he confessed that he found it hard to get excited in 2008 over his appointment as coadjutor with the right to succeed Cardinal Zen, but the inevitable finally came to pass on 15 April 2009.
 
At his first press conference after becoming the bishop, he set a tone for his time in office, saying indirectly, yet clearly that there would be a move away from the often polemical-style of Cardinal Zen and promising peaceful relations with both the local government and Beijing.
 
However, there were times when he saw fit to break from this rule of thumb and shortly after Liu Xiaobo was denied the opportunity to go to Norway to pick up his Nobel Prize, he called strongly on Beijing to release him, and human rights advocate, Zhao Lianhai, in his Christmas letter of 2010.
 
His message for that year, penned in his accustomed fire-side chat style, expressed something of the dreams and aspirations he held dear for the people of his diocese, one of which was improved relations with the mainland.
 
Cardinal Tong has long strongly insisted that all meaningful progress in relationships comes from dialogue, a topic about which he wrote extensively during his time as the bishop of the territory.
 
During what were difficult days for him in 2014, when vast numbers of people were occupying the streets of the city during the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement, he was pulled in two directions by those in favour of the movement and those who opposed it.
 
However, he had always been a supporter of the democratic way and on July 28 of the previous year, he had written in a lengthy statement, “Since a democratic form of government is essential for the well-being of Hong Kong society, the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong calls upon the government to begin formal consultations on the appropriate electoral reform model…”
 
However, always positive in his outlook, he added that although there are frustrations on the political front and grave social problems stemming from the huge disparity in distribution of wealth, not all is lost, as the city does have a degree of freedom of expression and other checks and balances.
 
In the area of dialogue between the Holy See and Beijing, which has been ongoing over the past couple of years, he was once again supportive, stressing the importance of trust in the process.
 
Although many disagreed with him, he stuck to his guns and while not anticipating any immediate result, he called on people to trust in the wisdom and fidelity to faith of the Vatican and to at least believe in the possibility of a change of heart in Beijing.
 
“Dialogue is particularly important, especially in tough times, as only dialogue can solve problems and differences,” he told the media at a press conference on 2 March 2012.
 
He added that he holds a strong preference for expressing his opinions mildly and in a rational context. “I believe that has a bigger impact,” he reflected.
 
But as with any bishop, he watched as his hopes for many of his dreams fizzled, often at the hand of the unscrupulous, but he bore the frustration, even humiliation in silence and with dignity.
 
He remained calm when savaged by the media over a pastoral letter he wrote encouraging people to scrutinise the platforms of candidates on the Sexual Orientation Discrimination Ordinance in the 2015 election, fearing it may lead to the legalisation of same sex marriage.
 
Similarly, he bore criticism with dignity when he spoke against random drug testing in schools when the government had usurped the moral high ground before wisdom could be injected in to the public discourse.
 
His knowledge of China saw him appointed to the commission for the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples in 2003 and he was later to be included in the Pontifical Council for the Promotion of Christian Unity.
 
On the ecumenical level, significant milestones were reached with the Lutheran Church in Hong Kong on common translations of two important documents and relations with other denominations and faiths have, as promised, been harmonious and productive.
 
He was one of two Asian members of the Pontifical Council for Interfaith Dialogue and although he would wonder out loud why as a non-native English-speaker, he had been included on the International Commission on English in the Liturgy at a time when a turbulent debate over the unpopular translation of the Mass was at its height, he remained faithful to his colleagues and bore the humiliation in silence.
 
Cardinal Tong has lived a life marked by fidelity and generosity. He has been a faithful son of China and Hong Kong, remained faithful to his people and served them with humility.
 
With a strong feeling for the outcast and the downtrodden, he has pushed hard for more English Masses in the diocese, particularly to cater to the burgeoning group of Filipino migrant workers.
 
By far the biggest national group attending English Masses, as bishop, he has encouraged parishes to offer them the hospitality of space, since as an often discriminated against people in the city they have no particular place to go.
 
While always welcoming, he was also positive about the migrant community, speaking of the great missionary contribution it makes to witnessing to the presence of God among the people.
 
He explained that because as domestic workers they live and work in homes among families, care for the children and give their witness to their faith quietly, from a position of weakness and simply through the holiness of their lives, they are missionaries in a true sense.
 
Cardinal Tong has also strongly supported Caritas, the St. Vincent de Paul Society and other groups that offer care to those who do not get a fair share of the economic pie.
 
He visited refugees in Hong Kong in their homes, went to the prisons and was open to talk with all and sundry, even ready to welcome foreign dignitaries and journalists into his busy schedule.
 
He made time for the young people of the diocese, even travelling vast distances to be with them at World and Asian Youth Days and taking on the task of doing catechesis with them.
 
As bishop of a pluralistic city he has made loud calls to the elite groups that make economic policy to govern in the interests of the lowly and the working people.
 
Comparing what he called the common temptation to embrace only personal desire with that thrown at Adam and Eve, he described the sin of self-interest as eroding respect for life and the family, which he firmly believes is the backbone of any society.
 
He has defended the right to decent pay and manageable work hours in calls to honour the natural right of people to spend quality time at home.
 
He has also called for a greater democracy that could give the people of Hong Kong a real voice in the running of the city and greater freedom of speech.
 
But in the life of a bishop there is always tension. On the political level it was never more visible than when along with Bishop Zen, the two grim-faced bishops marched determinedly into the courtyard in front of the cathedral to meet the first chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-Hwa, when he paid a sympathy call on the death of Cardinal Wu in 2002.
 
Although the ice of the day melted somewhat with an expansive gesture from Tung, it has never completely thawed and as recently as March this year, Cardinal Tong reacted firmly and quickly to a suggestion of setting up a government religious unit in the territory.
 
Nevertheless, patience and gentility have remained the hallmarks of Cardinal Tong’s ministry as he quietly did his rounds on parish visitation methodically spelling out his pastoral priorities, or standing in the burning sun to celebrate Mass for the migrant community, visiting schools, homes for senior citizens, prisons and celebrations of the myriad groups that exist within the diocese.
 
But born into humble beginnings in pre-war Hong Kong on 31 July 1939, he knows what violence and dislocation are, as he experienced both when his family fled to Guangdong in the face of the Japanese advance.
 
The flight across the border spelled 10 years of exile for the Tong family and the sudden death of their father left them in desperate circumstances.
 
The subsequent experience of being totally dependent on the kindness and generosity of others left him indelibly marked with a deep appreciation of the profound importance of reaching out in support to all people in need.
 
Ordained to the priesthood in Rome on 9 December 1966, the challenges he faced in life may not be the ones he would have chosen for himself, but in fidelity he accepted them and, it may be said that within the difficulties, he has lived a fortunate life.
 
But while he may not have chosen the challenges or responsibilities that came his way, nor would he have chosen the accolades that were thrust upon him.
 
Although he was made the first Hong Kong-born cardinal on 18 February 2012, he insisted it was a recognition of the importance of the Church in China and the special administrative region rather than a personal honour.
 
Then on a personal level, he called it a challenge to serve with greater courage and fidelity. But although a cardinal is considered as being a special adviser to the pope, he insisted that it was not his own opinion that counted as much as the accumulative knowledge of his forebears, together with the priests and people of the diocese that should be fed back to the Holy See.
 
Nevertheless, becoming a cardinal did bring him some cherished moments in his life. He had the opportunity to participate in a conclave to elect a pope and was part of the process that saw Pope Francis elected as bishop of Rome.
 
He also had the honour of being appointed one of the chairpersons for the Synod of Bishops on the New Evangelisation in 2011, a responsibility which he shared with a bishop from Mexico and another from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
 
But as the Old Testament tells us there is a time for everything and now is the time for Cardinal Tong to step aside. And as with everything he has done in life he will do it with good grace, as the people of his diocese say Vale Cardinal Tong.

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