CATHOLIC NEWS OF THE WEEK . Sunday, 1 September 2019

Print Version    Email to Friend
Cardinal Tong looks to opportunities in China

VATICAN (SE): “Through dialogue we can always achieve a win-win situation,” newly created cardinal, John Cardinal Tong Hon, told Gerard O’Connell in a wide-ranging interview at the Vatican published by the Vatican Insider on March 19.

The bishop of Hong Kong explained that that this is always his starting point with Chinese government officials, as he believes that ignorance on both sides of the fence has played a big role in the development of the current standoff between Beijing and the Catholic Church on the mainland.

He added that he believes that there is also a lack of trust, as Catholics have been hurt by officials riding roughshod over Church administration and officials do not seem to believe that Catholic people are patriotic citizens.

“I always ask the government to believe that our Catholic Church always asks each Catholic to be patriotic, to love their own country,” Cardinal Tong continued.

He added that he tries to explain that if they could enjoy more freedom they could make a greater contribution to the nation and the end of the long running standoff would put China in a better international spotlight.

However, he was quick to point out that the fault does not all lie on one side. Pointing to what have been described as forced ordinations of priests as bishops, without papal approval, Cardinal Tong said that we have to admit that it also reflects a weakness within the Church.

He said that it is important to remember that when a person is baptised they are being baptised into a community, it is not just an individual event.

He pointed out that, even in Hong Kong, he always encourages new Catholics to join a community or small group to help them develop this sense of communion with the wider Church.

He added that the same applies to priests and wonders if there has been something lacking in the formation programmes on the mainland that leaves Chinese priests with an underdeveloped sense of the spirit of sacerdotal collegiality.

Cardinal Tong pointed out that the government often chooses priests it sees as weak for bishops and, even though the Holy See explains the source of its opposition to Beijing, he gets pushed forward for ordination anyway.

He described this as a situation where the communion of the Church and the collegiality of the priesthood must come into effect, saying that people need to stand together to help the priest resist.

“However,” he lamented, “Many priests in China are influenced by secular values and the special status in society that being a bishop can give them. Unfortunately, too many priests in China today are ambitious. They want to be bishops.”

In this context Cardinal Tong said that all the blame should not be put on the government, but the individuals involved should wear part of it themselves and take responsibility for their own situations.

Cardinal Tong explained that when a priest is itching to be a bishop, the Holy See gets pushed into a corner, as happened last year, when two priests were ordained illicitly as bishops.

However, he explained that this has implications for the Church as a whole, as China does not exist in a vacuum, divorced from the universal Church.

“I think education and formation are still very important,” the newly-created cardinal told O’Connell. “Ongoing formation for seminarians and priests inside China is also very important.”

He explained that on one side, we can have the government pushing a candidate the Church judges as unsuitable into the bishop’s house, but he believes that with adequate formation and education, the ability to resist the offer should increase among Chinese clergy.

Nevertheless, the bishop of Hong Kong said that this is not the only problem faced by the Church in China, as Beijing has put structures of governance into place that are at odds with Catholic teaching.

He pointed to the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, which the government is keen to keep in place, as well as maintaining the name.

“The members of the association should play a very low key role,” Cardinal Tong said, adding that he believes that they could be absorbed into mainstream Church life and work by forming social agencies, like Caritas.

However, he stressed that they must be subject to the authority of the local bishop, as currently they tend to be the string pullers in matters Catholic, which is totally against Church teaching.

Cardinal Tong said that would be one way out of the dilemma, if the government was prepared to accept it.

He added that he believes that the only way to approach this, and other problems, is through dialogue. Otherwise he believes that there is no exit open.

“I think that now, China, including this government, is playing a very important role in the international arena. Therefore they have to appreciate many international values,” the cardinal went on.

“And we (must) consider some of their standpoints too. I think in the long run that China will change in very important ways. The Vatican can reach a win-win accord,” he stressed.

However, China is still China, and there are also cultural issues to be faced. “Of course the Chinese do care about face,” Cardinal Tong reflects, adding that this can be positive or negative.

On the plus side, he said that it means China wants its good reputation to be perceived as being intact, but on the flip side, it means it can be stubborn too, which can blind it to other points of view.

In this context, he noted that Beijing has not forced any illicit ordinations since July last year, but it has not sat down at the table to talk about it either. He added that even though there have been exchanges between the Vatican and Beijing, nothing has come out of them.

Nevertheless, things are not all gloom and doom, as the cardinal points to positive movements in the Church as well. He said that we should admire the developing spirit in the unofficial Church communities.

“Compared with the past, they have shown their openness to a certain degree. They have become more understanding than before,” he pointed out.

“In the past they attacked open (official) communities,” he said, “now some of them do not do this. In their writing and letters… some of them show that their attitude has become moderate already.”

He added that there is evidence of plenty of accommodating gestures to justify this opinion, even though the situation may vary greatly from place to place and person to person.

Cardinal Tong admitted that the Church is living through a time of crisis in China, but pointed out that crisis can also present opportunity.

He concluded that a difficult situation can lead to a deeper understanding of what is at stake and lead to a solution.

More from this section