CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

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To speak or remain silent? A bishop’s dilemma

HONG KONG (SE): At his installation Mass as bishop of Hong Kong on 23 September 2002, Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun said that one of his biggest challenges was to know when to speak and when to remain silent.
Although much has been made  of the myriad moments that the garrulous bishop chose speak, the sound of his silence is more difficult to discern, as the dilemma was a distinctly personal one for the newly appointed bishop to grapple with.
The time leading up to the selection of a new bishop is one of intense speculation, as commentators and interest groups weigh the pros and cons of the possibles.
The conversation does not just run around Church circles, as in a city like Hong Kong a bishop takes on a far wider persona, as the vast educational empire of the diocese, coupled with the magnitude of social and medical services provided through Caritas leave the Church and the government lying very much cheek by jowl in the same bed.
But while in some senses the two may be equitable bed mates, of late they have not always slept so well, as often radical differences over political structure; social and education policies; as well as economic and labour laws have seen the two readying to draw pistols at dawn.
But when the mystery of identity of the new bishop is already known, as in the case of a coadjutor like Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung, it shifts the speculation from the who to the how like a racing car driver slipping from second to third gear.
The speculation becomes more personally oriented and the archives are raked for clues as to how the new person at the top may operate.
The sound of Bishop Yeung’s past silence has been well combed, but without much rationale for the whys of his circumstance.
Nevertheless, wonder is the spice of commentary and a good question that evades an answer is the stuff of human interest.
John Mok Chit-wai, who teaches government and public administration at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, notes in an article published by UCAN that after the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from British to Chinese sovereignty there was a shift in government policy, which tended to leave Christian charities outside of the bed chamber.
Mok claims that the Church, especially its giant social service provider, Caritas, has been keen to address that drift and what he terms the Caritas clique, which included Bishop Yeung as its chief executive, echoed its silence on issues that others in the Church, including bishops, spoke out about.
However, he pinpoints the opening of the Caritas Bazaar in 2015 as ushering in a new era.
A somewhat controversial issue at the time, the then number two in the administration, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, reckoned she had a spot booked in heaven under the banner of the eighth beatitude, “Blessed are those persecuted for justice sake…”
Then addressing his guest of honour, John Cardinal Tong Hon said of her, “She has persevered and never given up… She set a good example for us.”
While the religious quips would in all probability not be taken too seriously, political scientist, Ivan Choy Chi-keung, says the politics probably would be.
Choy said her quip may well have backfired on her, as it invited comparison with other ministers and religion can be a sticky topic in Hong Kong political life.
However, what Mok does not make clear in asking the question, “What way will Church-state relations turn in Hong Kong?” is whether his concern lies in Bishop Yeung’s past silence or the manner in which Lam parades her Catholic faith.
Some of his examples may seem a bit passé, as a new chief executive visiting their old school or thanking fellow parishioners for praying for them is hardly out in left field.
Even a Facebook post assuring people she had gone to Mass on a day when she had been seen on television at St. John’s Anglican Cathedral may be just caution, as tongues can wag around parishes with as much venom as in political commentaries.
Whether Mok sees this as a political or a religious issue is not clear either, but he does wonder whether the fact that Bishop Yeung and Lam have had a long professional association as the chief executive of Caritas and the secretary of the Welfare Department will put the Church uncomfortably close to the state or not.
While he does not provide any answers, Mok’s question is fair enough, as a healthy distance, even if equitable, is the beginning of shaping constructive Church-state relations.
But harmony is a different question. One of the last theologically literate world leaders, Australia’s Kevin Rudd, once wrote that he would be worried if his government was not at odds with the Church over something, but his worry would be for the Church, as it would mean it was not fulfilling its mission in society.
Bishop Yeung may well hold the same concern about the government if there is a time when his Church is not at odds with it about something, but when to speak and when to remain silent remains a personal dilemma only he can grapple with.

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