By Elise Harris
Cardinal John Tong Hon has voiced support for a proposed deal on the appointment of bishops between the Vatican and China, saying he believes the Chinese government has generally become more tolerant, and an accord would help bring further openness and unity to the Church.
Tong is the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, and spoke at a March 22-23 conference titled “Christianity in the Chinese Society: Impact, Interaction and Inculturation” taking place at Rome’s Pontifical Gregorian University.
Tong is one of two Chinese cardinals, the other being his predecessor, Cardinal Joseph Zen. While Zen has consistently been an outspoken critic of the proposed deal, Hon holds a different opinion.
In an interview with a small number of journalists, one of which was CNA, Hon said opposition to the accord is “unreasonable,” because the deal aims at unity. He called the agreement “far-sighted” and said at times, sacrifice is necessary in order for Catholics to become “members of one family.”
The deal – which would allegedly follow the model of the Vatican’s agreement with Vietnam, allowing the Holy See to pick bishops from a selection of candidates proposed by the government – is rumored to be “imminent.”
In a recent blog post, Cardinal Zen indicated that the agreement could be signed as early as March 23 (tomorrow) or March 27. If the deal is reached, Zen said he would “retire in silence” and would “hide and pray,” but that he would not oppose the pope.
In his interview with journalists, Cardinal Hon said he didn’t want to speculate about when the deal might come, but said he was “optimistic” it would eventually happen.
Below are excerpts of Cardinal Hon’s conversation with journalists:
Q: This conference is addressing the presence of Christianity in China. From your perspective, what is the current situation for Christians there? Some say there is persecution and an increase in restrictions for religions, but others say the situation has improved. What is your take?
I am a Hong Kong citizen. Hong Kong belongs to one country, is a part of China, yet Hong Kong, after 1997, is one country run under two systems, meaning Hong Kong still continues to be a capitalistic administration, and China is under the socialist system for 50 years. So we are doing the same things as before. Regarding China, I am also a foreigner, so that means I’m not an insider. I can offer my impression with a limited knowledge of China…In a general picture I think China has already greatly improved, so sometimes you find this tightening in this part or that part, but China is huge. You cannot use this to describe…If we have a very far-sighted vision about China, I think China is [becoming] more civilized, closer to the outside world. And then I think the general situation, in the present, is better. Those would be my remarks.
Q: So your perception is that China is more open to religion, is more tolerant?
In the future also it should be, not the other way. Because the people can come out from China, now most of the people like to come to Hong Kong or outside of China for a week, so their eyes are opened after seeing the outside world. So they of course have higher expectations. And also the officials, knowing, they are not stupid, they know the expectations of most of the common people, and although on one hand they want to exercise their authority over the common people, but at the same time they have to compromise. So from time to time, sometimes [there’s] a tightening, but other times [there’s] a loosening policy. But in the long run China will be more and wider open, there is no other way. If I were the officials, I would do similar things. So I am optimistic.
Q: In your opening remarks you spoke about the importance of dialogue and communication between Chinese authorities and Christianity. This reminded me of your remarks in February about a deal between the Vatican and China on the appointment of bishops and allowing the Church to be registered in China. You said you were optimistic if it followed the Vietnamese model. Some say it won’t follow this model. Are you still optimistic?
Yes, I’m still optimistic, because I always, this is my belief, whatever is reasonable can last for a long time. Whatever is unreasonable will fade out or has to be changed. You can see from the whole of human history, even the history of China. Even Mao, Mao was so cruel, so strong, but finally…and also the cultural revolution created a lot of chaotic situations in China, but finally those situations have been changed. So there is no other way.
Q: So in this case ‘reasonable’ would be the deal, and ‘unreasonable’ would be against it?
Q: A lot has been said in the media about your predecessor, Cardinal Zen, who has spoken out a lot against this deal. What is your opinion about this and what it says about the current dynamics in China?
This is a free world, everybody can express their own opinion. Everyone can use their own mind, their wisdom, to discern. So when you open your eyes and also open your ears, you can hear many, many different voices. So this is a free world. What can you say? We, as persons, we respect everybody as a person. So different opinions, up to your own wisdom to discern. That’s my [opinion], which I received from my teacher, it’s the lesson I learned.
Q: How is Pope Francis received in China? In the West he’s very popular even among non-Catholics. Is it the same in China?
Yes. Generally speaking, he’s loved by Catholics and non-Catholics.
Q: What’s the appeal?
He’s a humble person. The first thing is that he is really humble, and a humble person will be loved by many people. If you are proud you get a lot of enemies. This is also biblical teaching by our Lord Jesus. So we have to be humble. Jesus humbled himself and came down to earth and finally received crucifixion, suffering. So humility is important, that’s one thing. And second, he has a far-sighted vision. He’s not only seeing [now], but how to achieve the reign of God. The reign of God is to make humanity whole, to be one family, and we are all brothers and sisters, the whole world. Also through the negotiations promoted and advocated by the Second Vatican Council…Sometimes we can lose something so we can achieve friendship and set an example for all others and all other people, so finally we become friends, and then eventually we become all members of one family. At that time the reign of God will be implemented on earth…I was trained here 50 years ago at the Urbanianum. At that time the Second Vatican Council was being held, and I witnessed the grand closing ceremony. And right away I was ordained a priest with more than 60 classmates by Pope Paul VI. So that is what we were taught, and we have also what we were taught to believe in. So if you don’t believe that, that it’s only looking for [certain] things, that’s your business, that’s not my faith. And finally, we have to pray for the Church in China.
Q: People have been talking about a deal with China for years, and now it seems that is pretty sure…
I don’t want to make any guess, it’s up to God’s will.
Q: But if it does happen, is there something about Francis’ pontificate or diplomatic style that would allow the deal to happen? Is there something about the way he does diplomacy that would make the deal more likely than in the past?
If there’s any breakthrough, it’s God’s will, I don’t want to make any speculation. I’m not a prophet, I only follow our dogmatic teaching in the Church, and also the teaching of the constitutions issued by the Second Vatican Council. What I have learned in teaching in seminary, we pray for the Church in China, but I don’t want to make any speculations…during the year, almost three years ago, during the year of divine mercy, the Church in China, particularly, during that period, was also very happy to respond to the appeal made by the Holy Father. So it shows that they are very positive about the Holy Father because they follow the instructions given by the Holy Father.