Pope Francis on Monday announced retired Hong Kong Bishop Cardinal John Tong as the Apostolic Administrator of the diocese, after his successor Michael Yeung died on Jan. 3 at the age of 73.
Tong, 79, headed the diocese from 2009-2017. He told reporters on Monday that he was “shocked” by the request from the Vatican.
“As a priest, as a bishop, we have to obey the orders of the Church,” the cardinal said.
Yeung’s sudden death left the Church in the former British colony without a bishop for the first time since it was transferred to Chinese rule in 1997.
The vacancy comes just months after a September Vatican-China agreement on the appointment of bishops in the communist country, where the Church has been divided for decades between a state-sanctioned Church taking orders from Beijing and an underground Church loyal to Rome.
Hong Kong has always been an exception to this rule, since the territory’s Basic Law respects the freedoms it enjoyed under British rule, and the Vatican has been able to appoint personnel to the territory.
Since the handover, popes had always appointed a coadjutor bishop – an auxiliary that automatically succeeds the bishop when he dies or retires – to ensure a smooth transition, and to lessen the likelihood the Chinese government would try and interfere with the appointment of Hong Kong’s bishop.
Yeung had served as Tong’s coadjutor for nearly 10 months before taking over on Aug. 1, 2017.
Tong has said in the past he sees Hong Kong as a “bridge” between the Vatican and Beijing, and he has been supportive of the agreement between the parties.
At the press conference, he was joined by the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, Joseph Ha.
Ha has often spoken at pro-democracy rallies, and is thought to be opposed by the Communist regime.
According to the Hong Kong Free Press, when asked if he didn’t have Beijing’s blessing, the auxiliary replied he “often had the blessing of the Lord.”
“I am not sure if I count as liberal, but I am happy to listen to others,” Ha said.
It has become more common for the Vatican to appoint an apostolic administrator to temporarily head a diocese when it becomes vacant, especially if special circumstances surround the diocese.
Tong told reporters he didn’t expect to remain in power for long.
“I know this is only a transitional period. It will be a short-term role,” the cardinal said.