ROME – An expert on Chinese affairs has called Jesuit Father Stephen Chow, the newly-named bishop of Hong Kong, a balanced choice for the Vatican as it attempts to navigate the complicated and rapidly changing on-the-ground status of the territory.

Speaking of the appointment, Father Bernardo Cervellera, head of AsiaNews, said that from what he can tell, Chow “seems like a person who will defend the fundamental rights of the Church, but who will also be open to dialogue.”

“There is a median position between the radical, anti-China democrats, and the radical pro-China anti-democrats,” and Chow is someone who represents this position, Cervellera said, adding, “He is a person who underlines the values and principles of the Church but won’t become ideological or anti-China with a side taken.”

Chow’s highly anticipated appointment was announced May 17, although his mandate won’t become effective until Dec. 4.

Chow, 62, replaces Bishop Michael Yeung, who died in 2019, leaving an important vacancy that was not easy to fill given the rapidly changing status of Hong Kong, which, since 2018, has been the site of massive pro-democracy protests initially sparked by a bill allowing extradition to mainland China.

Tensions increased last year with Beijing’s rollout of a new national security law which went into effect June 30, 2020, and which bans treason, secession, sedition, subversion, foreign interference, and terrorism, among other things. The new legislation also allows the Chinese Central government to establish agencies to help Hong Kong fulfill its security requirements whenever they deem necessary.

With tensions high and division becoming between pro-democracy activists and pro-China supporters becoming more acute on the ground, finding someone to lead the Church who can strike the right balance has been no small task.

Yet in Cervellera’s view, Chow, at first blush, seems up to the task.

It’s not yet known what officials in mainland China think of the appointment, but Cervellera said he’s heard from many local priests “who were very happy with the choice made by the pope.”

Educated in the US and Ireland, Chow is also a supervisor at Hong Kong’s Wah Yan College. Since 2018, he has served as head of the Chinese Province of the Society of Jesus, overseeing the order’s activities in mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan at the same time the Vatican penned its controversial agreement with China on bishops’ appointments allowing both parties to have a voice in selecting candidates.

RELATED: Hong Kong’s new bishop wants differing views respected

Given the deepening divisions in Hong Kong, Cervellera said “It’s good that a bishop has finally been named because it is a point of reference for unity.”

Chow himself during a May 18 press conference formally announcing his appointment spoke of the need for unity, telling journalists that as of yet he has no major plans for how to achieve this, but “I do believe that there is a God who wants us to be united!”

“Unity is not the same as uniformity,” he said, adding, “I always mentioned in my schools, we must respect unity in plurality. It is something that we must learn to respect—plurality.”

Noting how even the community at his school has been divided about the events of the past few years, Chow said the big question has been “how to bring healing. It takes a long process – and I am not saying I was successful, but I am doing my best. Listening with empathy is very important, and this is the fundamental point.”

Chow was initially asked to step on as the bishop of Hong Kong a year ago but refused. However, after receiving a personal letter from Pope Francis asking him to do the job, he agreed.

“It’s a difficult situation, because Hong Kong is in a moment of transition. It’s a liberal country with the rule of law, and with a solid religious freedom, but it’s becoming a state dominated by a national security law, which is a law that’s a noose, a territorial law,” Cervellera said, saying the new legislation “greatly puts into crisis the rule of law and, according to some priests in Hong Kong, it will also eventually put religious freedom into crisis.”

Chow also spoke of religious freedom during the press conference, telling journalists that “Religious freedom is our basic right. We want to really talk to the government, and not to forget that. It is important to allow religious freedom. Matters of faith – not just Catholic, but any religion, should be free.”

In terms of dialogue with China, Chow said the starting point must be from a position of faith.

Beijing should not be viewed “as the enemy,” he said, voicing his hope that the Church and Chinese authorities can achieve a better understanding of one another through dialogue. “It is not that I am afraid to talk about controversial or political issues,” he said. “Rather, we believe prudence is a virtue.”

Cervellera said one key area Chow will likely address right away is “rebuilding” the Church’s relationship with young people.

Young people, he said, “who are the ones most penalized in the territory of Hong Kong, punished from a social point of view, employment, work, and penalized by the Church.”

Noting that the pro-democracy protests, some of which turned violent, were largely led by youth, Cervellera said some young people felt abandoned by the Church, in part because of the silence of Pope Francis and other authorities when the new national security law was imposed and activists young and old were jailed for their vocal defense of democracy and their criticism of the Chinese authorities.

“It seemed that the Church was no longer interested in them,” Cervellera said, so a priority for Chow is “to rebuild the relationship with youth.”

Cervellera also believes that Chow will take the question of religious freedom and the freedom of education seriously.

When the national security law was imposed in Hong Kong, “some priests feared that this security law sooner or later would pose a threat to religious freedom in Hong Kong, and to the freedom of education,” as some topics taught in the classroom could be considered sedition under the new law.

With nearly 300 schools in Hong Kong, the Church is “an important interlocutor for the freedom of education,” Cervellera said.

He pointed to Chow’s vast academic experience and his knowledge of the international scene given the fact that he’s traveled so much to study. Because of this, Chow “knows many situations,” and he also as in-depth knowledge of the intricacies of the Chinese world, he said, adding, “this is an advantage for the future of the mission.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen