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Gerard O’ConnellNovember 03, 2023
Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow Sau-yan of Hong Kong, poses for a photo at the Varican. Sept. 28, 2023. (CNS photo/Carol Glatz)

EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW WITH CARDINAL STEPHEN CHOW

Hong Kong’s Cardinal Stephen Chow Sau-yan, S.J., described synodality as “a dream that we want to come true” and as “something we have to learn, with humility, with love” in this exclusive interview with America’s Vatican correspondent conducted on Oct. 23 as the Synod on Synodality entered its final week.

Commenting on the presence of two bishops from mainland China at the synod, he said, in a reference to “The Lord of the Rings,” “It completes the fellowship.”

The Chinese cardinal, 64, also spoke about his visit to Beijing last March, and how as bishop and cardinal he can play a “bridge” role in relations between the Vatican and China. He talked, too, about how he envisages the church in Hong Kong contributing to bridge-building, healing and reconciliation in society.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Gerard O’Connell: What memory are you taking away from the synod?

Cardinal Stephen Chow: Synodality is important. We’re still working on it. We know it is a dream that we want to come true. But we need to work on it and believe in it. It is tempting to give up sometimes because not everyone is on the same page, not everyone wants to have synodality happen in this way. You have lay people and non-bishops around, and some bishops have some concerns and ask: What’s this? Where does our authority lay?

I don’t have that problem. For me and the majority of bishops and cardinals at the synod, it’s not a problem. But I can understand the other point of view; they know that in the past bishops have been the ones with teaching authority and who have made the decisions about what to propose to the pope.

Two bishops from mainland China attended the synod for the second time.

Yes, but not the same ones who came for the Synod on Young People in 2018. This time different ones came.

What was the significance of their presence?

It’s like when you see “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring,” you feel that their presence completes the fellowship. That’s the feeling. That’s a feeling shared by some bishops and cardinals that I know. Even though I was not in their group, those in their group told me they really did participate; they did contribute.

What impression do you think they have taken away from the synod?

Naturally, in the first couple of days, they were unsure of the ground, so they were more cautious and talked to each other. But after that, you could see them more and more relaxed because people started to talk to them and to understand. I think they really enjoyed the experience.

Were they at the pre-synod retreat?

No. They came after the retreat and stayed at Santa Marta. But they were at the opening Mass on Oct. 4. During their stay, I celebrated Mass and had meals with them, and we also got together and talked with the bishop from Taiwan. For us, the experience was this: We are bishops, we are brothers. They experienced what synodality is and participated in it.

Like everyone else at the synod, they were also able to briefly greet Pope Francis in the morning before the meetings started because he came early. He told them about the image of Our Lady of China from Sheshan [outside Shanghai] that he has put outside his room in a place where he can see it every day when he goes to his room. He asked one of his security guards to bring them to see that image, and they were very touched. They told him that the priests and bishops in the mainland are very moved by the fact that the pope truly cares about China.

Why did they go home early?

When they arrived, they already had the return date on their tickets; except we did not know ahead of time. They did not leave suddenly as some said; they did not walk out. We knew they were going to leave sooner, but we did not make that public. It’s almost like the last time when two [mainland Chinese] bishops came for the Synod on Young People in 2018, they stayed for almost two weeks, so I wonder if that was a kind of benchmark.

Do you think they will be allowed to come again to the second session of the synod next October?

I hope [the authorities in Beijing] will allow the same three [two bishops, plus priest translator] to come again and ideally stay to the end.

What do you think the synod is saying to those bishops in terms of the situation in China?

I cannot speak for China. I can only speak for Hong Kong, and to us, the synod is saying that we are really walking together, journeying together, and this is something that should happen, must happen. We need to learn this even more because sometimes Catholics are just doing their own thing; sometimes we don’t work together. Synodality is not a natural intuition for people: What does it mean to walk together? How do we accompany each other? That’s something we have to learn with humility, with love.

Do you see the synod changing the church?

I hope it will change the church—I’m not talking about the holy tradition—that it makes the church more relevant to the world, more relevant to fellow Catholics, so that they see they’re part of the church, and the church is part of them. But all that will take some time of learning and adjusting.

In Hong Kong, sometimes we feel a certain sense of not knowing what to do, a sense of helplessness. But we need to take back our agency. We need to construct our future, to be proactive in a way. Some believe in being passive, just lying flat, and not doing anything.

Before the synod, you visited Beijing in April 2023 to develop good relations with the church in China. Could you summarize that visit?

I went for five days with [Auxiliary Bishop] Joseph Ha Chi-shing, O.F.M., and with the Rev. Peter Choy [the vicar general of the diocese]. I think it is important to build up the relationship in the sense that once we know each other now, the other is not a monster, not an unknown. The other is known, and we can really think of walking together [and of] how we can collaborate and work to help each other.

Beijing is not a typical diocese, and there are many other dioceses in the country, and Bishop Li Shan of Beijing and other bishops encouraged me to visit more places, more dioceses.

You invited Bishop Li Shan to visit you in Hong Kong. Will he come?

I invited him. Hopefully, he will come.

Did anything surprise you during the visit?

The Beijing diocese is developing. They have a new, really big modern church and a pastoral plan.

They also have involved the laity. I don’t see what depth there is yet, but they have projects run by laity. I think they are doing what is good, and the lay people who talked to us are doing good. And they have vocations. We went to the two seminaries in Beijing, the national seminary and the diocesan seminary, [and I saw] they have vocations.

The bishops’ conference, which is not recognized by the Holy See, has its headquarters in Beijing. Did you meet some people from the conference? Did you meet government officials?

Yes, we met some, including Bishop Shen Bin (now bishop of Shanghai), and I met the head of the religious bureau and his team.

From your conversations with officials in Beijing, do you think they appreciate Pope Francis?

They really appreciate Francis. They see him as someone with whom you can have dialogue, someone who is really interested in China. I say that because it came through in my conversations.

What is it they like about him? Is it the fact that he doesn’t attack them?

[They like] what he [has] said, what he represents. He doesn’t criticize; he wants to know about China, he wants to be fair. It has become clear to me that the Chinese, the government, and the people feel they have been misunderstood by the West. Some people deliberately twist things and make them look bad. They appreciate anyone who says something fair.

I’m not saying who’s right [and] who’s wrong. But I think people who feel they have been misunderstood always feel better when someone has a more positive light on them. They appreciate that Pope Francis appreciates them.

When you were made cardinal, did some in China send you greetings?

Yes. The data is positive.

The Vatican has moved slowly in its relations with Beijing, and many say the provisional agreement on the nomination of bishops hasn’t produced great fruits. How do you read it?

It certainly would take a lot of patience. We need to see what the approach is, and if we need to refine the approach. But I am certain the direction is correct. I believe that it is good to have dialogue. It’s good to have this improved relationship with China. And [it’s good] for China to see and to understand us better, and for us to understand them better. Now how to make it a little more efficient and effective, I think that’s something we need to reflect on and to learn.

At the end of Mass in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, Pope Francis called you and Cardinal John Tong (the emeritus bishop of Hong Kong) and held your hands as he sent a message to Chinese Catholics and to Beijing. Were you surprised at that?

Oh, yes. It was not planned. Just after Communion, one of the masters of the ceremony came and said, “Hong Kong, come, come and stand here [by the side of the pope],” and he said the same to Cardinal Tong. Then at the end of Mass, Pope Francis spoke in Italian, and though I don’t understand Italian, I got the words “popolo Cinese” (Chinese people).

Do you know how the message was received in Beijing?

I understand it was well received.

Do you think Pope Francis understands China well?

Every time he came to Rome as archbishop of Buenos Aires, he would always visit a Chinese Jesuit, Father Joseph Shih, and ask about China. So, he cares about China. He’s not ignorant about China. He’s always been interested, and he’s informed. But we need a lot of patience.

How do you see your role in relation to China?

As a bridge.

This has been the traditional role of the Hong Kong church.

Yes, but even Hong Kong itself has been a bridge between the West and East. I hope it will continue to do that well, and that the church, too, will continue to do so.

Where do you think you can build the bridges?

Between people first. You need to work on people to [let them] see that we really want to have good relations and to understand each other. We do not have a political agenda, as the pope said in Mongolia. I’m glad he said that very clearly. We have no political agenda!

You had a private audience last year with Pope Francis, and I saw he said something to you when he gave you the red hat at the consistory on Sept. 30. What can you tell me about both encounters?

Last March 2022, I had an audience with him, but since I don’t speak Italian or Spanish, we needed a translator. Then at the consistory, he said something to me in Italian, like, “Do well on China.” I think he wants me to work hard on the mission for China.

You are the bishop of Hong Kong. I’ve been there several times and have followed what’s happened in recent years. How do you read the situation there today?

Hong Kong is still recovering. Certainly, economically, we’re still not really that strong. I feel we’re still suffering from emigration which means that a lot of industries and professions are lacking people. When you’ve lost so many people it affects many areas of life.

I understand many people have left Hong Kong in the last two or three years.

A lot of people have left Hong Kong, I think over 300,000. Many of them are around 30 to 40 years old with professional careers and young families. Some are Catholics and were supposed to pass on the baton [of the faith] to the next generations in the coming years.

In your Easter homily, you spoke about the people in prison. How many are in prison?

I don’t know exactly, but certainly not a small number.

I understand there are Catholics among them.

Yes, but I don’t have the statistics on that.

Is it more difficult to be church in Hong Kong at this time in history?

No. Actually, religious freedom is intact.

But I understand problems arise if you speak out on social justice questions.

If you come out with something that violates the national security law, then that’s a problem.

Have you encountered any problems in your ministry since you became bishop in Hong Kong?

So far it’s been O.K. Hong Kong people learn how to be careful. You know what you can say, or how you can say something acceptable regarding the message you want to get across. In the past, you could freely say whatever you want. Now you have to be careful how you say it.

What is your dream for the church in Hong Kong?

I have my dream that it can help this city to stand up, to bring healing and consolation. So it’s the bridge thing! To be a bridge not just for China and the universal church but also for Hong Kong; we need to build bridges, to bring healing, and we [need] to stand up. Within the church too we need to have that healing, reconciliation and develop synodality. How do we walk together? How do we get the young people to be more involved? Hopefully, as a church, we’re becoming more and more synodal, because that is the way forward, beyond polarization, beyond being self-referential. I mean the church has a mission. It has to be a church that talks to people, that’s relevant to people, not a church just for ourselves.

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