Gratitude, patience, waiting.
Three words for the Church in China
(English and Chinese versions)
Interview with the new Cardinal John Tong Hon, Bishop of Hong Kong
Interview with Cardinal John Tong Hon by Gianni Valente
Cardinal John Tong Hon presents himself as a simple, smiling person. He prefers soft tones and a low profile. Among the new cardinals created by Pope Benedict XVI in the Consistory of 18 February 2012, his life story stands out for several reasons: a basketball player, an expert of Taoist and Confucian thought, a ‘second generation’ Christian. But now, the current bishop of Hong Kong will be for everyone above all the seventh Chinese cardinal in the history of the Church. Called on to offer with more intensity and authority his contribution of advice and balanced judgments with respect to the crucial issue of relations between the Holy See, the Church of China and the Chinese government.
John Tong Hon, Bishop of Hong Kong [© Associated Press/LaPresse]
JOHN TONG HON: That is so. My mother was the first who had the opportunity to enter into contact with the Catholic faith. As a girl she attended a high school run by the Canossian Sisters, where there were also many Italian nuns. One day she also happened to meet the nuncio in China, who was visiting her school: the nuns had selected her to present a tribute of flowers to the representative of the Pope and she was very proud of this. She had also begun to study catechism, but without immediately receiving baptism, because there had never been a Catholic in her family. She decided to be baptized only after the Second World War, when I was already born and was six years old.
They were terrible years, those of your childhood.
When the Japanese conquered Hong Kong, we fled to Macao. Then I was entrusted to my paternal grandmother, who lived in a village in Guangdong. Only at the end of the war could I reunite with my parents in Canton. They were the years of the civil war. Communists and nationalists were fighting internally in the north. While the refugees and wounded soldiers arrived in the southern provinces. The American missionaries who were in Canton welcomed and helped whoever was in need with all-embracing love, regardless of whatever side they belonged to. My mother and I also helped them to distribute aid to survivors and refugees. Looking at the witness of my pastor Bernard Meyer and his Maryknoll brother missionaries, I began to think that I too, when I grew up, could become a priest.
It happened that you studied in Rome precisely during the years of Vatican Council II.
The Council helped me greatly to broaden and deepen my vision. I was ordained a priest, the Council had just closed a few weeks previously, by Pope Paul VI on 6 January 1966, with another 61 deacons of 23 mission countries, all students of Propaganda Fide.
Nearly half a century later, at the last Consistory, it was you who delivered a speech in front of the Sacred College to explain the situation of the Catholic Church in China. What did you say to your fellow cardinals?
To describe the situation in China, I used three words. The first is wonderful. It is a wonderful fact that in recent decades, the Church in China has grown and continues to grow, even if it is subjected to many pressures and restrictions. This is an objective fact, it can also be verified with numbers. Catholics in China in 1949 were only 3 million, now they are at least 12 million. In 1980, after the reopening ordered by Deng Xiaoping had begun, there were 1,300 priests. There are now about 3,500. And there are also about five thousand nuns, two thirds of whom belong to the open church community registered with the government. And also 1,400 seminarians, one thousand of which are being trained in seminaries funded by the government. There are ten major seminaries recognized by the government and six similar centers related to the underground community. Since 1980, three thousand new priests have been ordained, and about 4,500 young nuns made their vows. Ninety percent of priests are aged between twenty-five and fifty.
So, all is well?
The second word with which I described the situation of the Church in China was the word difficult. And the most difficult test that the Church faces is the control imposed on ecclesiastic life by the government through the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (PA). I quoted a letter sent to me by a highly respected bishop of mainland China, who wrote: "In every socialist country, the government tries to come up with a method, using some nominal Christians to set up other organizations outside the Church structure itself, in order to control the same Church". The Chinese Patriotic Association is an example of this modus operandi. And in the Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics in June 2007 it is written that these organisms are not compatible with Catholic doctrine. It was seen again in the illegitimate episcopal ordinations imposed on the Church between 2010 and 2011.
John Tong Hon during the Palm Sunday procession of 2010 in front of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception of Hong Kong
According to analysis conducted by Leo Goodstadt – the well-known scholar in Hong Kong who was also an advisor to the last British governor, Chris Patten – there are several reasons. The communist regimes fear the competition of religion in influencing people's minds, their ideas, and eventually their actions. They realize more and more that religions are important in people’s lives and are not going to disappear from the horizon of human societies, and that on the contrary the number of followers of religions is increasing and they are frightened by this. And after the event of 11 September, the anxiety has increased, since it was seen again that religious ideas can also lead people to go to war. Finally, the new leaders who are preparing to come into office in 2012 must at this time show themselves to be loyal communists.
As the Pope clearly wrote in his Letter to Chinese Catholics, "the Catholic Church which is in China does not have a mission to change the structure or administration of the State; rather, her mission is to proclaim Christ to men and women". How is it possible that the government of a powerful nation like China should be afraid of the political interference of the Vatican?
We live in society and our real life has to do necessarily with the political dimension and is related to it. But certainly the Church is not a political entity. It's not really our problem or our goal to change the political systems. And moreover, in our case, it would be quite impossible to do so.
Let's return to your speech at the Consistory. What was your third word?
The third word I used to describe the condition of the Church in China is the word possible. To understand the rationale behind this choice, I read other passages in the letter from the bishop that I have already mentioned. That bishop said he was serene, peaceful and confident with regard to the present, also because he looked at the problems of today remembering the experiences he had lived through in the turmoil of the decades of persecution, between 1951 and 1979. He, in those past ordeals he had gone through, had been able to experience that everything is in the hands of God and God arranges things very well so that the difficulties may eventually contribute to the benefit of the Church. Thus we see that in itself it is not the increase of activities of control by the government that can quench the faith. Indeed it may happen that the effect is to increase the unity and awareness in the Church. Thus, the future may also appear bright. And we can quietly await with confidence the grace of God. Perhaps the solution of certain problems will not come about tomorrow. But neither will it be necessary to wait for a far off time.
Some say that in addressing the problems it is necessary to choose between two alternative ways: either the way of dialogue, or the way of the defense of principles. But do you think the two are really incompatible?
I for my part am inclined to be moderate. It is better to be patient and open to dialogue with everyone, even the communists. I am convinced that without dialogue no problem can really be solved. But while we should be open to dialogue with everyone, we should at the same time firmly maintain our principles, without sacrificing them. This means that, for example, a new bishop can accept episcopal ordination only if there is papal approval. We can not renounce these principles. It's part of our Creed, in which we confess the Church as one, holy, catholic and apostolic. And then also the defense of the value of life, the inviolable human rights of the person, the indissolubility of marriage... We can not renounce the truths of faith and morals as they are also outlined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church.
Sometimes one gets the impression that some Catholic circles in Hong Kong have the task of ‘measuring’ the degree of catholicity of the Church of China. Is this the mission of the Church in Hong Kong?
Faith does not come from us. It always comes from Jesus. And we are not the controllers and the judges of the faith of our brothers. We are simply a sister diocese in relation to the dioceses that are on the mainland. So, if they want, we are happy to share with them our experience and our pastoral work. And if they are in more difficult situations, while we enjoy a greater freedom, our aim is only that of trying to support them. Praying that all can keep the faith, even under the pressures they are subjected to.
In certain comments, a large area of the Church in China is always described as if it were on the boundaries of fidelity to the Church. At the same time, the great devotion of Chinese Catholics is recognized. How do the two things go together?
It never seems appropriate to me to speak of China, which is so immense, in an all-encompassing as well as generic way. I am not convinced by the affirmations according to which the "faith is strong in China", nor by those that emphasize the opposite. Everything depends on the people. There are so many good witnesses of the faith, who offer their lives and also their sufferings to Jesus, and then there are also some people who, driven also by the environmental pressure, sacrifice their principles. These are just a few. For example, those priests who have agreed to receive episcopal ordination without the approval of the Pope. This is not correct, and we must say so.
It is precisely on the young bishops that the attention of many is focused. According to some they are allegedly fragile, and there are some opportunists among their ranks. What is to be done with them? Isolate them? Condemn them? Justify them always and whatever the case?
No, no, no isolation. First of all, let us pray for them. Also for those who have committed obvious errors. And if some people can approach them, and be their friend, they can urge them to recognize what was not correct in their choices. And also to send a letter to the authorities to explain how things came about and possibly ask for forgiveness. This is simply a form of fraternal correction, of healing, not of punishment.
Do the divisions between the two groups of Catholics, the so-called ‘official’ and the so-called ‘underground’ have as the sole triggering factor the pressures and submissions imposed by the government?
Unfortunately not. There are also many other factors and reasons.
Even in China, the growing phenomenon of internet sites that attack Catholics about doctrinal and moral issues– starting with the bishops – accused of having betrayed the faith and the Church because of opportunism or cowardice, giving in to the illegal demands of the regime. What do you think of this?
I think that fraternal correction which I spoke of earlier is made through dialogue, not through internet attacks.
The difficulties experienced by the Church in China concern the bond of communion with the Bishop of Rome. Over time, do you see the danger that this bond will be perceived with less intensity among the clergy and the faithful?
InChina I continue to register a great devotion to the Pope. They love the Holy Father, this is certain. They are under pressure on this point. They are hindered in their desire to have normal contact with the Successor of Peter. It is also for this reason that their desire becomes stronger. I would say that it is almost normal.
John Tong Hon greets the cardinals in St Peter’s Basilica after having received the cardinal’s hat from Benedict XVI in the Consistory of 18 February 2012 [© Reuters/Contrasto]
Yes, I was present at that mass. It was 1985. I was then a priest of the diocese of Hong Kong and since 1980 was directing the Holy Spirit Study Center [the influential research center on the life of the Church in China, ed.] Jin asked me to be present. He asked me to show my support, at that time. He told me that he had been in prison, that he wanted to keep his own faith and his communion with the universal Church and that he would send letters to Rome to confirm his submission to the Apostolic See and the primacy of the Pope. He said he had weighed all in conscience, and that at that historical moment it seemed that there was no other way except to accept the episcopal ordination. Given the circumstances, it seemed to him an obligatory choice to sustain the diocese of Shanghai and save the church and the seminary there. Seven years ago the Holy See accepted his requests and recognized him as the legitimate bishop of Shanghai. But these are things of the past. Now we must look to the future...
Precisely looking at the present and future, what have you learned from the experiences of those times?
I learned that time can tell, can prove, time can give an account of things. Sometimes only in the long term can you see clearly whether something is right or wrong, whether a choice was dictated by good reasons or not. In the transitory immediacy of the moment you can not clearly judge how things are. But in the long run it emerges whether the intention of the heart was at least good. Sometimes situations are complicated in China. One is put under pressure, you do not find people to discuss things with. But if you make the choices having the love of Jesus and the Church in your heart, the right intention at the end can be verified by all, in the long run.
And what, with respect to the controversial events in which Chinese catholicity is involved, does this imply?
We can not fix on a single point, can not attempt to review every decision, and expect that every action and every decision made by members of the Church in China are always perfect in every moment and every situation. We are human, we are human beings! We all make mistakes and fall many times along the way. But then you can ask for forgiveness. But if each error is isolated and becomes a reason for condemnation without appeal, who can be saved? It is in the long run that you see whether a priest or bishop has a good intention in his heart. You see whether what they do is done for the love of God, the Church and the people, even with all their human errors. This is important: to discover that people persevere in fidelity because they are moved by the love of Jesus, also in difficult situations. In the end, in the long run, everyone will see it. And certainly God sees it, who searches the hearts of all of us.
汤 汉枢机主教是一个纯朴而微笑的人，他喜欢柔和的色调并具有低调的风格。教宗在2012年2月18日的擢升枢机典礼中将他提拔为枢机主教。他的简历与众不同 有以下几个原因：他是篮球运动员；儒、道思想专家；“第二代”天主教教徒。目前的香港主教已成为教会历史的第七位中国枢机主教。他被擢升为枢机意味着要作 更多而更大的付出、要提供更有权威性的意见及更多平衡的分析，以帮助教廷处理关键的问题，特别是教廷、中国教会和中国政府三者间的重要关系。
汤 汉：是的。我的母亲是第一个有机会接触到天主教的信仰的人。她就读的高中是嘉诺撒会修女办的，她的学校里有许多意大利修女。有一次，她有机会见到教廷驻中 国大使，因为他来参观她的学校。修女们派她献花给教宗的代表，她对这件事感到非常地自豪。她开始学习教义，但没有立即接受洗礼，因为她的家族中从来没有天 主教徒。她是在第二次世界大战后才领洗的，那时我已六岁了。
当 时日军攻占了香港，我们便逃离到澳门。我父母将我托付给住在广东农村的奶奶。战争结束后我才能与我的父母在广州团聚。那是多年的内战时期。共产党军与国民 党军在北部打仗，而难民和伤兵则退避到南部省份。不管他们属于哪一方，在广州的美国传教士都接待并帮助他们。我和我的母亲也帮助传教士分发救援物资。我的 本堂迈神父(Bernard Meyer)和其他的玛利诺传教士给了我们很好的榜样，使我想到长大以后也要当神父。
我 给他们描述了中国的情况，用了三个词。首先是“出人意外”。这是一个令人惊讶的事实，近几十年来，中国教会即使受到很多压力和限制，却成长了，而且继续壮 大。这是一个客观的事实，可以从数字上看出。1949年在中国的天主教徒只有300万，而现在至少有1200万。1980年邓小平开放政策后，当时神父有 1300位，现在已增加到3500位。天主教会还有5000名修女，其中三分之二属于在政府那里注册的修会团体。还有1400名修生，其中1000名正在 由政府资助的修院里学习。政府资助的大修院有10所；地下教会办的修院有6所。自1980年以来，祝圣了3000位新神父，4500个修女发了圣愿。 90%的神父年龄介乎25岁与55岁之间。
我描 述中国教会的状况的第二个字是“难”，是困难重重。教会要面对的是一个艰难的考验，政府要通过中国天主教爱国会（PA）来控制教会生活。我引述了一个中国 大陆德高望重的主教写给我的一封信中的话：“在每一个社会主义国家，政府都用同样的方法，利用几个徒有虚名的平信徒来控制教会，他们在教会结构里加入了一 个不相干的组织来控制教会”。爱国会便是这种手法的例子。在2007年6月教宗给中国天主教徒的信中说，这些组织与天主教教义是无法调和的。我们可以从 2010年到2011年之间的非法祝圣主教的事件中看到这个情况。
据 香港著名学者前港英政府中央政策組首席顧問顧汝德(Leo Goodstadt) 的分析，其中有几个原因。首先，共产主义政权害怕宗教的竞争，他们害怕宗教影响人的思想、想法和行动。他们意识到，宗教不但没有从社会中消失，而且宗教信 徒的人数却增加了。911事件之后，焦虑增加了，因为觉察到宗教的思想和信念，也可以导致战争。还有一点，在2012年接班的新领导要上台了，他们要证明 他们是忠诚可靠的共产主义者。
我 形容中国教会的情况的第三个词是“可能”。要明了我选用这个词的理由，我想为大家念一念我提到的那位主教的信的其它段落。主教说他现在感到的是一片宁静和 自信，因为过去的经验帮助他面对今天的问题，1951年至1979年动荡几十年的迫害经验帮助他如何看今天的问题。在过去的磨难中，他体验到一切都在天主 的手中，祂可以推动一切的事，困难最后也会对教会有益。因此，我们要看到，控制的增加，不会使信仰消失；相反，它可能会提高教会的团结，因此，未来可以说 是光明的。我们要等待天主和祂的恩典，也许某些问题的解决不会发生在明天，但是，我们也不会等待太久。
为 我来说，须要中庸，需要适度。须要对每一个人有耐心和开放的态度，与共产党对话也要这样。我深信，没有对话就不可以真正解决问题。与人对话时，我们要有立 场，不要牺牲自己的原则。例如，一个新的主教要有教宗的同意才可以接受祝圣，这个我们不能放弃，因为是我们信理的一部分。我们要宣认教会是至一、至圣、至 公、从宗徒传下来的。然后我们也要捍卫生命、不可侵犯的人权以及婚姻的不可拆散性......。我们不可以放弃信仰和道德的真理，正如《天主教教理》所阐 明的。
信 仰并非来自我们，而是来自耶稣，我们不是控制和裁决我们弟兄信仰的判官。我们只是其它大陆教区的一个姐妹教区。所以，如果他们愿意，我们很高兴与他们分享 我们走过的路和我们的牧灵工作。他们处于较困难的情况中，而我们则享受多一点的自由，我们的目标只是尝试着支持他们。让我们祈祷，希望他们即使在重重压力 下仍然保持信仰。
中 国如此之大，如果说她是这样或是那样是不恰当的，不能以偏盖全。“在中国，信德很坚强”的断言不能说服我，相反的说法也不能。一切都视乎个人。有许多很好 的信仰见证人，他们将他们的生命及痛苦奉献给耶稣；也有一些人，在环境的压力下牺牲了原则，但这只是少数。例如，那些神职人员没有得到教宗批准却同意接受 祝圣主教，这是不行的，我们必须说清楚这一点。
是 的，我有出席弥撒。这是在1985年，当时我是香港教区的一个神父。自1980年我负责圣神研究中心（圣神研究中心是研究中国教会生活的权威），金主教他 请我参加，因为他想要我支持他。他告诉我，为保持信仰及与普世教会的共融曾坐过牢。他说他会写信给罗马，表明他听命于圣座并承认教宗的首席权。他已经按照 良心做过深入的反省，在那个历史时刻，除了接受祝圣似乎没有其它的路可以走。鉴于这种情况，为了使上海教区继续向前并为了保护修院，那是唯一的选择。七年 前，教廷接受了他多年的请求，承认他为上海的合法主教。但这些都是过去的事。现在，我们必须放眼未来...
我 学到了时间可以证明一切。时间可以让事情显得清楚明了。有长一点的时间，你可以知道是对还是错，是根据正确的还是错误的理由来做选择。在短时间内是无法清 楚判断事情的。如果有长一点的时间，你至少可以看到是否有良好的意图。有时中国的情况很复杂，在压力之下，很难找到人与你一起验证一切。但如果你心里爱耶 稣和祂的教会，内心的意向在长时间之后就可以得到验证。
我 们不可以把事情锁定在某一个点上。我们不可以审查每一个决定，也不可以要求中国教会的成员在每一时刻、每一种情况下所做的每一个行动及决策都应该是完美 的。我们都是人，都是会犯错的人！在人生的路上我们都会多次犯错和跌倒，但我们可以请求宽恕。但是，如果每个错误都要被孤立，都成为谴责的原因，都得不到 原谅，谁还能得救呢？随着时间的推移我们可看出一个神父或主教是否有良好的动机。即使他们有人为的错误，也要看他们的内心，要看他们做的事情是否是为了爱 天主、教会和人民，这是很重要的。我们要懂得去发现，即使在困难的情况下，他们如何保持恒心与忠信，因为有耶稣的爱在推动着他们。最后，每个人都会看到， 天主肯定会看到，因为祂洞察每个人的心。