ROME – After the arrest of several high-profile pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, including Cardinal Joseph Zen, the territory’s new bishop has urged faithful to refrain from “reactive” instincts, and to instead search for God amid the changing social landscape.

In a piece of commentary published in Hong Kong’s diocesan weekly, the Sunday Examiner, Bishop Stephen Chow, who was appointed as the new bishop of Hong Kong last year, compared the current situation in the city to flowers and plants poking through cracks in stone walls or a cobblestone street.

These plants he said, “are proofs of the amazing power of life that comes from the Creator. How can they grow up in such a tight and awkward environment?”

“I can feel that Hong Kong, including our church, is becoming more like an existence within cracks,” Chow said. “We used to enjoy much space and freedom of expression when we could express our opinions in any way we like.”

He cautioned Christians against adopting an attitude of “immorality and self-righteousness” amid the current troubles, but admitted that “our freedom and expression, which we had taken for granted, seems diminishing.”

Hong Kong’s new national security law came into effect in June 2020, imposing strict punishments for those accused of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign or external forces.

In the two years that have passed since the law went into force, hundreds of activists have faced police scrutiny, and many have been arrested, including Catholic business and media tycoon Jimmy Lai.

Hong Kong authorities last month detained the retired bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, 90, and three other trustees of the defunct 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund on charges that they had violated the national security law and were guilty of “collusion” with foreign forces.

The fund, for which Zen was a board member, was shut down last year after coming under fire from civil authorities in Hong Kong.

Zen, who was released on bail, appeared at the West Kowloon Court in Hong Kong May 24, along with five others, and was charged with failure to register the 612 Humanitarian Fund, which was established to provide financial assistance to those participating in anti-government protests in 2019.

Each of the defendants, including Zen, pleaded not guilty. The next step in what will likely be a lengthy legal battle will take place Sept. 19, when the trial for the accused will begin.

In his commentary, Chow said that with the narrowing of societal freedoms, many people feel like they are “living in cracks, which makes us nervous, anxious, disappointed, upset, frustrated, and angry.”

While some have opted to leave Hong Kong, others have stayed, Chow said, saying he made his own choice when he decided to accept his appointment as bishop of the territory.

“I want to share with you that the love and light of God can be found in all things, even cracks,” he said, and pointed to the image of flowers, trees, and shrubs that have grown up through cracks.

“They have demonstrated that nothing can prevent life from flourishing, adding colors, beauty, and hope to our world,” he said. “The tougher the condition, the more resilient life will be. Cracks can even widen in some cases.”

Amid these circumstances, faith can be “an amazing engine that empowers our lives, individually and collectively, if we positively live out our faith,” he said.

“However, if we only want to stick to the past, not ready to find God’s guidance in the changing context, our lives will become bitter and sour. Darkness will take hold of us,” he said.

Chow insisted that accepting the changing reality and social context “does not mean endorsing it,” but rather means finding a way forward by “learning to discern new possibilities with a creative mindset amid tensions from the changing context.”

“The future still holds its promises beyond our understanding,” he said, saying true discernment involves allowing time for reflection and a well-thought-out response, rather than reacting.

“Alas, our present culture seems to be a reactive culture. We seem to be pushing each other to react almost instantaneously,” he said. “We will not be able to discern God’s will if we allow ourselves to be carried along by this force.”

Instead, by reacting, “we will be enabling the pushers to be our gods. I am reminding myself of this, especially when the push gets stronger,” he said. “Allowing ourselves the inner space to discern is essential and beneficial in the long run.”

Follow Elise Ann Allen on Twitter: @eliseannallen