The Vatican has appointed John Tong Hon as the interim leader of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong after the death of Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung last week, a rare move that astonished the retired cardinal himself.
The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong originally decided to put Auxiliary Bishop Joseph Ha Chi-shing in charge of its affairs temporarily until an acting bishop is selected in a meeting scheduled for Friday right after the funeral ceremony for Yeung, who died of liver failure last Thursday at the age of 73.
However, the Hong Kong Diocesan Curia said on Monday that it received a notice on Saturday from the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, which announced that Tong has been appointed Apostolic Administrator to govern the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong until further notice from the Congregation, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reports.
That means Tong, 79, who was succeeded by Yeung in August 2017, is coming back from his retirement.
Normally, when a bishop passes away, a diocesan administrator is selected by the diocese itself.
Tong told reporters that he was shocked by the Vatican’s appointment, which he called unprecedented in the Hong Kong diocese since there had been no apostolic administrator in the past, even though three bishops had died in office.
Admitting that he has no idea how long he will serve as apostolic administrator, Tong said one of the reasons why the Vatican chose him may be the fact that he had worked for the diocese for 25 years and therefore is quite familiar with its operation.
The Vatican may have chosen him, Tong said, because he had stepped down not so long ago, RTHK reported.
Tong also said he believes the appointment will be a transitional one, only for “a rather short period of time”, the public broadcaster quoted him as saying.
He said the chance for him to be reappointed as bishop is very small, but stressed that he will follow any order given by the Vatican.
Responding to reporters’ questions, Tong said whether a candidate is accepted by the central government is not their “main concern”, adding that they are focused on religious, rather than political, matters, RTHK reported.
Ha told reporters that the Vatican does not make any decision based on political considerations, adding that an apostolic administrator wields more power than a diocesan administrator and therefore can handle may things directly with no need to seek approvals or invite decisions from other bishops.
Professor Ying Fuk-tsang, director of the divinity school of Chung Chi College at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said Beijing may not want Ha to become bishop because he has voiced support for the three leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy Occupy movement and Beijing does not agree with his stand on certain issues, prompting the Vatican to intervene and appoint Tong.
Meanwhile, Caritas Hong Kong on Monday set up a place in its community hall on Caine Road where the public could come to offer prayers, sign the book of condolences, and mourn the late bishop. The place will be open until Thursday.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor and Beijing’s liaison office deputy chief Tan Tieniu arrived at Caritas on Monday morning to pay tribute to Yeung.
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