HONG KONG (SE): Hong Kong’s twin diocese of Essen in Germany celebrated its 60th anniversary of foundation on February 23.
It was pioneer country when the diocese was carved out of Münster, Cologne and Paderborn, encompassing the fast developing coal fields and industrial complex of the Ruhr Valley.
Offering a high volume of relatively unskilled mining and factory jobs, it was a favoured destination of migrants from Poland and southern Europe and, when it opened in 1957, had a Catholic population of 1.4 million.
As a diocese hosting a high percentage of forced migration from political and economic turmoil, it was able to take on a counter-cultural and brave challenge, committing itself to support Hong Kong in accepting the huge number of migrants who had fled China in the late 1940s early 1950s.
Memories of World War II were still raw in the German consciousness, so a decision to throw its weight behind a programme in a British colony was both brave and culturally challenging.
However, the high point of life in the diocese is now in the past, as the coal mines lie idle and most of the factories have closed down. Its Catholic population today is only around half of what it was in 1957 and its 259 parishes have shrunk to 43.
Nevertheless, it has developed creative programmes to support the unemployed and ageing people abandoned by the economic change in the area, as well as working to introduce a significant influx of East Germans to the wider world.
Bishop Franz-Josef Overbeck said during a visit to Hong Kong in 2012, “Those times of the 1950s and 1960s called for a mentality change in ministry. And they were pushed by Vatican II. Today, we are just as much in need of a mentality change, as we live in an atmosphere of cosmopolitan religion and a mixed population. We must be a creative Church.”
Bishop Overbeck stressed that just as the people of Essen saw their twinning with Hong Kong back in the late 1950s as an important way of expanding their faith horizons, the relationship is equally as important today.
“It was a radical move to support a British colony in the days when the wounds of World War II were still raw,” he reflected.
“It was Christian compassion that grew out of a realisation that the Church is a world Church that led people to support a place like Hong Kong,” he explained.
The two dioceses have sought to learn from each other through personnel swaps, with young people sponsored by Caritas working in each other’s social services.
Father Christian Becker also came to Hong Kong for some years to work with the German community, but in the process spread his wings over a much broader apostolate.
Both Bishop Overbeck and his counterpart in Hong Kong, John Cardinal Tong Hon, agreed that both dioceses have gained much from their twinning relationship.