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Cardinal Chow is hope for Hong Kong, bridge to China

After the Angelus, Pope Francis announced the appointment of Bishop Stephen Chow as cardinal, a choice welcomed with joy in Hong Kong as well as in many Catholic communities in mainland China.

Following the papal announcement, the Diocese of Hong Kong issued a statement in the evening that read: “Bishop Chow urges the faithful to keep praying for him and the Diocese of Hong Kong.”

Speaking to reporters this morning outside the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, the new cardinal described the appointment as a new mission. “I continue to hope that there will be more reconciliation and more hopes for young people, especially those who have been in jail, so they have a future. That’s very important,” he said.

The Xinde website, a point of reference for mainland China’s Catholic communities, reported the bishop of Hong Kong’s cardinalship, with a title that describes the decision as “double happiness”. Only a few days ago, Pope Francis made the prelate a member of the synod, an important step considering that – unlike in 2018 – no mainland Chinese prelate will be able to travel to Rome for this event.

In addition to a picture of Bishop Chow from his recent trip to Beijing (the first official visit by a bishop of Hong Kong since the territory was handed back to China in 1997), Xinde also posted two pictures of other meetings involving the new cardinal before he was appointed bishop of Hong Kong, a sign that, as Jesuit provincial, he was always close to the Church in China. By contrast, the official website of the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association has not reported the news.

Chow will be the fourth cardinal in Hong Kong’s history. Two are still alive: Card Joseph Zen (91) and Card John Tong (who will turn 84 in a few days). The first, Card John Baptist Wu, who was created cardinal by John Paul II in 1988, passed away in 2002.

The incumbent bishop of Hong Kong called to be part of the College of Cardinals is 63 years old, starting his episcopal ministry on 4 December 2021, against the difficult background created in Hong Kong by the national security law imposed by Beijing to crush the pro-democracy movement.

Cautious by nature, Bishop Chow is firmly convinced of the importance of avoiding divisions. Yet, in recent months, he has not shied away from the difficulties Hong Kong is facing today. In an article published in the summer of 2022 by the diocesan weekly Sunday Examiner, he acknowledged the changed situation, urging the faithful to be as resilient as grass “breaking through the cracks”.

in his last Easter message, he mentioned the more than 6,000 arrests in connection with the 2019 pro-democracy protests and courageously expressed hope that “those in prison [may] see the light” one day.

Also in view of this, his appointment takes on a particular significance for Hong Kong, as Fr Gianni Criveller, PIME missionary and sinologist, notes in the commentary below.

The announcement of the appointment of Bishop Stephen Chow of Hong Kong as a cardinal is important because the city and the diocese of Hong Kong are in one of the most difficult moments of their history. This appointment indicates that the Pope and the Holy See are close and attentive to the bishop, the diocese, and the people of Hong Kong.

Since pro-democracy demonstrations that began in 2019 were suppressed with the introduction of a national security law on 1 July 2020, the pope has never spoken out. Yet many pro-democracy leaders arrested are practicing Catholics and Card Joseph Zen, who supported the pro-democracy movement, was among the arrested and convicted (but not jailed).

The pope’s silence had aggrieved many Catholics. Even the long hiatus before the appointment of the new bishop (the diocese of Hong Kong had been vacant for almost three years) was experienced with concern by the Catholic community. With his latest choice, the pontiff is saying that Hong Kong holds an important place among his concerns, as did the important and warm meeting with Card Zen on 6 January.

Francis has elevated a Chinese bishop to the cardinalship, the only one he could pick without immediate political complications. With Bishop Chow’s elevation, Hong Kong becomes a city with three cardinals, perhaps the most after Rome.

Last April, along with his closest aides, Bishop Chow traveled to Beijing where he met Bishop Joseph Li Shan and the local Catholic community, in remembrance of Fr Matteo Ricci, now a venerable. It is possible that with this appointment, the pope wants the bishop of Hong Kong – who moves with great caution and always uses moderate words in a truly difficult situation – to bridge the gap between the Universal Church, the Holy See, and the Chinese Church.

After all, a bridge – a real one, the modern Tsing-Ma Bridge which connects Hong Kong’s Tsing Yi Island to the mainland – stands out in the episcopal coat of arms Chow chose two years ago together with the Jesuit motto “Ad maiorem Dei gloriam”. Indeed, the “Mission of our Church is to be a bridge for different parties to meet by moving over it,” reads the coat’s description.

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