HONG KONG — When Bishop Michael Yeung took over as head of the diocese of Hong Kong this past August, he inherited a role that had been previously occupied by vocal players in the Catholic Church over the past two decades — eager to use their post not just to make a mark on Hong Kong, but the broader international context in which they were situated.
Both Cardinals Joseph Zen and John Tong Hon — who had his resignation accepted by Pope Francis in August — have been visible prelates not just in their dioceses, but also in the Vatican’s global affairs.
At 71 years old, Yeung is energetic, though at times understated. When he speaks of issues facing his diocese one can sense he views it as a field hospital, with his role marked by concern for his flock’s immediate needs, rather than an eagerness to immerse himself in larger inter-Church debates and conflict.
Yeung was born in Shanghai, but moved with his family to Hong Kong at age four to escape the forces of China’s Cultural Revolution. He spoke of his love of Chinese culture and history as very much in his blood, leading to an approach to Vatican-Chinese relations that emphasizes the positives rather than its present divides.
“You know the population of China…it is 1.4 billion. If just one percent of the whole population becomes Catholic, it will be more than Europe,” he reminded me.
“There are many people in China that have still not had a chance to receive the gospel, so I think the Holy Father has a good reason to consider every day how to spread the gospel on Mainland China. It’s not for political purposes,” he added.
“The Church should never chase after these worries for authority or power. When the Church was in great authority or power, it’s when the Church got corrupted. When the Church got poor and humbled itself in serving others, that’s the time the Church was really growing.”
Just a few days prior to my interview with Yeung, I’d spent time with Cardinal Joseph Zen who emphasized that the Church could not compromise in its witness and must continue to resist the official Communist Party in China.
Yeung, while more or less in agreement with Zen’s overall approach, offered a more nuanced view on the particulars.
“I think the Holy Father wants to reach out to China not for any political or power competition…our Lord Jesus Christ, he never asked his disciples to go against the Roman empire,” he said.
“Of course, we have to speak out when those rules and regulations are against the teachings of the Church and the teachings of our Lord,” he insisted.
“I always want to limit the kind of religious problem in China to a local problem and let us utilize the opportunity so that we can listen to each other and talk. Maybe the talk will not always be successful,” said Yeung.
“We believe that everything is in the hand of God so we maintain a kind of positive attitude. To be a Christian is bound to be positive. To be a Christian is to put everything in the hands of the Lord.”
A field hospital at work
Yeung’s offices are situated in Hong Kong’s Catholic’s complex — an almost fortress like set of structures that include the diocesan offices, several schools, the offices for Caritas, and in the center of the enclosed buildings, the city’s cathedral.
“I don’t deserve this,” Yeung responded after I congratulated him on his new post. While I reminded him that his predecessor has said that he is “better…in every way,” Yeung joked that “he’s just being very kind, he’s just being nice.”
Yeung is a bishop that is focused on the specific challenges of his diocese and how the Catholic Church can be a pivotal player in the life of the faithful. He’s not just interested in abstract ideas or spiritual practices, but in concrete realities.
“Hong Kong is a society full of challenges, at the same time, it is also a fractured society,” said Yeung. “We have different people, different voices and opinions, and I always hope there’s an opportunity we can sit down and really talk and listen. This is not going to be achieved overnight.”
“This society is aging rapidly. It’s one of the cities in the world that in less than twenty years every one in three people will be over 65 years old,” he added.
“Who will be carrying on the torch? The younger generation whether you like them, whether you agree with them, in just a few more years of time, they will be the mainstream of society.”
At his mention of this, we discussed the pope’s upcoming synod on youth, vocations, and discernment, where he spoke with much enthusiasm and echoed the pope’s challenge to approach this synod with innovative solutions.
One idea that he’s keen on proposing on a local level is helping young entrepreneurs in Hong Kong. Yeung realizes that both unemployment and rising rent costs are a major challenge facing youth, and as such, he’s proposed to the government that they turn their empty school buildings into shared workspaces for young business leaders. This, he believes, will help create a sense of community, while also fostering creativity.
It’s merely one idea, but it’s an indication of where his mind is at on the issue.
“The young generations are a very important pastoral responsibility for the Church, to help them to learn, but also to help them to grow,” said Yeung.
Sharing the journey
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, housing, healthcare, and other social service systems.
Caritas, the Church’s global body for carrying out the Church’s social work, is the primary mechanism for the Church’s social services in Hong Kong, which Yeung chaired before being named bishop.
“I much preferred that job,” he said with a wink.
But there’s much truth to be gleaned from such a statement. Yeung’s heart is that of a pastor intensely focused on how the Church can be an essential part of the daily life of the city. This is one reason Yeung spoke with such enthusiasm about the pope’s “Share the Journey” campaign, which was launched last month in an effort to focus the global Church on the plight of refugees and immigrants.
“‘Share the journey,’ of course, has as a background the refugee problem, not just in Europe….people in Hong Kong, we want to keep the people from the mainland at a distance…we think too many people coming from the mainland will be a hazard to us. Or look at Europe, in Germany, people are afraid of having refugees. The United Kingdom, they want to keep them away, and that’s why they have the [Brexit] process,” he said.
Yeung is an immigrant himself and appreciates that focus, but says it has even broader implications.
“‘Share the Journey’ is not only talking about migrants, immigrants, or refugees, it’s that we know that we walk together…that we have to help each other. We are all sojourners.”
“You are a guest here in Hong Kong,” he said to me. “You are a sojourner. But am I not also a sojourner? I am only staying a little bit longer than you here in Hong Kong. We need help from one another.”
For Yeung, it’s the work of building up social solidarity that is likely to define his time as bishop of one of the world’s fastest growing cities. He believes that if the Church can create an environment that welcomes the stranger, then such a mindset can pave the way to salvation.
“We are entrusted by God to better utilize our situation, our environment, to better help one another. Otherwise it would be impossible to understand what Pope Francis says in Laudato si.”
“This environment is not also about a physical environment, it is also about relationships. Not only about our relations with the earth, how do we utilize the wealth of the world and how we use water — it’s also about how we respect each other,” he said.“For sharing the journey, it’s the same. The Holy Father is urging us to use our interpersonal relationships with one another.”
In his first homily as bishop of Hong Kong, Yeung said, “The pastoral priorities of the diocese include ministry in the healing of relationships, particularly with regard to the problems affecting families, the broken, and the wounded.”
As I asked him to sum up his focus for his diocese, he once more turned to the people.
“It is only through listening to them and thinking through their perspective that we will then know what to do and discern what is more important.”