HONG KONG (SE): The first Hong Kong-born cardinal described the honour bestowed upon him by Pope Benedict XVI at a consistory in the Vatican on February 18 as a challenge to serve with greater courage.
John Cardinal Tong Hon told the Hong Kong media on March 2 that although he is the one on whom the honour has been conferred, it is more a recognition of the importance of the Church in Hong Kong and China.
As the only Chinese cardinal of working age, he said that he believes strongly in consulting widely with his forebears, priests and people of the diocese, before offering feedback or presenting his ideas to the Holy See.
He added that basically he sees himself as a pastoral bishop and his vision for the diocese has not changed, but he believes that he has been called to serve with greater courage, as the insignia colour of a cardinal is the red of a martyr’s blood.
Nevertheless, he stressed that he sees dialogue as the great challenge, especially with Beijing, as he believes that Sino-Holy See relations has slipped backwards over the two illicit ordinations of bishops that took place last year.
“Dialogue is particularly important, especially in tough times, as only dialogue can solve problems and differences,” he reflected.
However, he noted that he believes that the way forward is through negotiation and believes that the priests who agreed to become bishops in this illicit manner also have to bear some of the responsibility for the breakdown in the dialogue.
“They should love both country and the Church,” Cardinal Tong said. On the one hand, they know what the country needs, but they also understand the rules of the Church. They can wait until both sides agree before receiving ordination.”
The newly-created cardinal added, “I think that as the Chinese government is increasingly opening up, dialogue is possible, even though the priests concerned are put under some pressure.”
Historically, he roughly divides the attitude of Beijing towards religion into two eras, describing it up to around 1980 as suppressive.
He explained that even though freedom of religious belief is enshrined in article 36 of the constitution, Beijing makes a distinction between belief and practice, as one only refers to the mind and heart, and the other to activity.
“But since the opening up in 1980, there has been a gradual development,” he went on, “and I believe there will be wider developments in the future. It has been a period of more tolerance. It now allows some legitimate activities.”
He stressed that China is huge and the practice varies a lot from place to place and person to person, but overall there is still a gradual movement for the better and he remains optimistic.
He pointed out that locally he will continue to push the social teaching of the Church, although he will not join any rallies agitating for universal suffrage or appeal to the Catholics of Hong Kong to join them.
He added that he prefers to express his opinions mildly and in a rational context. “I believe that has a bigger impact,” he said.
However, he drew the attention of the media to a recent document published by the priests of the diocese of Hong Kong placing the expectations of the Church before the government.
He said that he agrees with the sentiments expressed in the open letter, saying that there is a need to create a society in the city for the betterment of all, especially the poor and marginalised.
However, on the local political front, he said that he is optimistic and even though Hong Kong does not have a system of one-person-one-vote, there are checks and balances in the system of governance, like freedom of the media and the Independent Commission Against Corruption.
He pointed out that Hong Kong is a far better place than many countries where persecution exists and corruption is rampant, and encouraged people “not to overreact and to express their wishes peacefully.”
He also called for trust that the rule of law will bring about universal suffrage in the 2017 election for the chief executive.
Asked about the current furore surrounding the chief executive of the special administrative region, Donald Tsang Yam-kuen, over possible conflicts of interest, the new cardinal noted that while he believes that Tsang is a sincere man, judgement on the issue belongs to the legal system.
He said that if Tsang has overstepped the mark, it is the responsibility of the Independent Commission Against Corruption to talk. “We should not overreact,” he commented, quoting the counsel of Jesus in saying, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
Cardinal Tong added, “Don’t be too quick to judge.” He continued to say that everyone needs self-examination, but it is fair to ask if it is appropriate for a government leader to live in such luxury in the midst of the widespread poverty in the city.
“The criticism of the public has helped him in his self-examination, especially in the context of his future,” the cardinal said.
He then quoted the prophet Ezekiel as saying that if we strive towards living well, God will forgive.
Cardinal Tong said that he trusts in the rule of law and believes that the Basic Law will deliver universal suffrage for the chief executive in time for the 2017 election.