Hong Kong’s bishop, Cardinal John Tong Hon, had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis on Tuesday, meaning coadjutor bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung has automatically succeeded him in office.
Speaking shortly after the announcement was made, Tong, 78, said his successor “is better than me in every way … I am sure he will do better and better.”
The transition is coming in the midst of a political crisis in the former British colony, which is now a part of the People’s Republic of China.
In July, four members of the city’s Legislative Council were disqualified for the manner in which they took their oath last year. Two other members were disqualified last year for the same thing. China accused the politicians, who are pro-democracy advocates, of promoting independence.
Hong Kong is governed as a Special Administrative Region under the ‘Basic Law’ agreed to with the British before the 1997 handover of the territory, meaning it has more freedoms than the mainland.
Tong said he was not worried about the future of Hong Kong, “because we have the Lord above and the people below.”
The cardinal added, “Our city also has a good history and the support of our motherland.”
Yeung, 71, was named coadjutor bishop last fall. He was born in mainland China, in Shanghai, but immigrated to Hong Kong at the age of four.
“Chinese blood flows through my veins. I was born in China, my parents are Chinese, and I love Chinese culture – how can I say that I’m not Chinese? The ties cannot be cut completely,” Yeung said when he was appointed coadjutor, stating his opposition to independence for the city.
Hong Kong and the nearby former Portuguese colony Macau are the only dioceses in China in which the Vatican can freely appoint bishops.
The Catholic Church in Hong Kong has nearly 400,000 members, but makes up only about 5 percent of the population. However, it has played a prominent role in the territory since British rule, providing a social safety net through its educational, healthcare, and social service systems.
Its influence can be seen by the fact that two of the four Chief Executives -– Donald Tsang and the current office holder Carrie Lam – have been practicing Catholics.
Lam, who took office on July 1, received a rebuke by Tong when she proposed a “religious affairs” unit for the territory while serving as Chief Secretary for the territory.
“In the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, government officials have sufficient channels to contact religions directly, without any need to have such a ‘religious affairs unit’ or department for contacts,” the diocese said in a statement.
Lam backed down from her plan.
Both Tong and Yeung have been less outspoken than Tong’s predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, who continues to speak out against China’s communist government.
Just last week, state media were ordered to not refer to Zen as “emeritus bishop,” instead being told to use the phrase “former bishop.”
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church on the mainland is under the direction of the state-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association.
The Association marked its 60th anniversary last month, and during the commemorations members were told by Communist Party official Yu Zhengsheng that, “Interpretations of the teachings and dogmas [of Catholicism] should match the needs of China’s development and the great traditional culture … and proactively fit into the Chinese characteristics of a socialist society.”
The patriotic association was established Aug. 2, 1957, and answers to Beijing, not the Vatican.
The Vatican says the association is illegitimate, and incompatible with church doctrine, because its constitution advocates the principle of a Church independent of Rome.