Bishop John Tong, a new cardinal for Hong Kong and China
by Bernardo Cervellera
The bishop of Hong Kong underlines the importance of the Church of Hong Kong in helping the Church in China. "Working together with Card. Zen (Hong Kong) and Card. Shan (Taiwan). The importance of the Vatican Commission in implementing the guidelines of the Pope's Letter to Chinese Catholics (including the rejection of the Patriotic Association, "incompatible with Catholic doctrine"). Sorrow for bishops and priests who have disappeared in police custody or in labour camps.

Vatican City (AsiaNews) - Hong Kong Bishop John Tong Hon, 72, is among the 22 prelates who will receive the cardinal's hat from Pope Benedict XVI tomorrow. In an interview with AsiaNews he describes himself as "unworthy" of the position to which the Pope has called him, but "full of gratitude for this honor," that Benedict XVI has bestowed on the Chinese Church. Currently there are three Chinese cardinals including Msgr. Tong; Card. Joseph Zen (Hong Kong) and Card. Paul Shan (Kaohsiung, Taiwan). Msgr. Tong says they can "work together", especially in strengthening the role of the Church as a bridge between Chinese Catholics and the Universal Church. Msgr. Tong has followed events in China for decades. Member of the Vatican Commission for the Church in China, he has a positive view of the Commission's work which in a few years has succeeded in spreading the Pope's letter to Chinese Catholics and increasingly reconciling official and underground communities. He emphasizes that Benedict XVI's Letter clearly states that the Patriotic Association - a control body over the Church - is to be rejected because it is "incompatible with Catholic doctrine and the Catholic structure."

For the cardinal-designate diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China are not of primary importance and should not absorb all the energies of the Commission.

The cardinal-designate shares AsiaNews' concern for imprisoned bishops or those who have disappeared in police custody, but he confesses to have a softer approach towards the Chinese authorities: we must first establish a "good relationship" and then express our concerns. In any case, we must "never erase these our brothers from our memory". AsiaNews has already published a lengthy interview with Card. Tong, when he became ordinary bishop of Hong Kong (see: 30/04/2009 Bishop John Tong of Hong Kong, "man of dialogue" but with "non-negotiable principles"). Here is AsiaNews' full interview with Msgr. Tong, released hours before he receives the cardinal's hat:

Card. Tong, how do you feel about this new responsibility that the Pope has given you?

I feel very unworthy of this position. But I am also grateful for this honor. I have no reason to deserve this: it was a decision of the Holy Father who wants to show his appreciation for the Church in China. It is a real encouragement for the Church of Hong Kong, which will continue its role as a "bridge church" for the faithful of mainland China.

Card. Joseph Zen of Hong Kong is 80 years of age, and Card. Paul Shan of Kaohsiung (Taiwan) is 90. Both are no longer an active voice in a possible conclave. Your appointment as cardinal shows that the Pope does not seem to want to do without a voice of the Chinese Church among the cardinals.

Having three contemporary Chinese cardinals makes us deeply grateful to the pope for his attention towards China. The three of us working together. Moreover, it does not matter if others are retired or not and there is no problem with being elderly. We can benefit from an older person's wisdom. Card. Zen is still working hard and with determination, and we respect his opinion and his wisdom.

Moreover, Chinese culture exalts the figure of the elderly as those with greater wisdom of life ...

We all want to capitalize on their experience. No matter how much they say, what is important is the quality of what they say. Even one word can be invaluable. Card. Shan is very committed to evangelization in Taiwan and even now holds retreats, conferences, meetings. And the same can be said of Card. Zen, with his personality full of strength and enthusiasm. He goes to Europe, America, returns to Hong Kong and after a night spent in the plane is ready to meet people, teach, etc. ... Is it really too much for me.

How does the Church of Hong Kong function as a "bridge church" with the Christians on the mainland? How will you work in this area now that you are a cardinal?

I must say that the Church of Hong Kong is not only clergy, but also by lay people: we are a community and we are all church, from the person at the top to the very last Catholic. Now that the Chinese have a little 'more freedom, there are several Chinese priests and groups of faithful who come to visit Hong Kong. For several years now we have organized a team for their "welcome", to welcome them and let them visit our communities, our catechesis centers. In this way we can show them how we catechize catechumens, the content of our teaching. If they are people who are studying theology, seminarians, priests, religious, we invite them to visit a convent or seminary, so they can compare their experience to ours. In this way they learn from us and we learn from them. It is also a way in which we try to update them on the life and teaching of the Universal Church. Once there were different personalities in Hong Kong who went to teach in China, and now there are less. But today there are more people who come to Hong Kong. In fact there is a two-way exchange. Hong Kong now, rather than a Bridge-Church, can be considered a sister-Church to China. We do not know what harvest all of this sowing will yield, but hopefully it will be an abundant one.

You have long been a member of the Vatican Commission for the Church in China, which has existed for almost 5 years. In your opinion, what results have been obtained in recent years regarding the evangelization of China and the resumption of diplomatic relations between the Holy See and Beijing? What will your contribution be now as a cardinal?

The Commission has produced many results. The group was formed after the pope issued his Letter to Chinese Catholics in June 2007. In the autumn of that year the Commission was launched. Our work is closely linked to that letter, which gives guidelines on how to address certain issues in the life of the Church in China.

The letter consists of two parts. The first is Catholic doctrine and structure of Church life. And in this regard, it states that the Patriotic Association is incompatible with Catholic doctrine and the Catholic structure. In addition the letter informs the Government that the Church has no political aims or interests, but encourages its members to improve their nation and make an active contribution to society.

The second part deals with the formation of priests, nuns and laity. We all need an education and formation that does not stop at the seminary, but continues even after. We should continue learning throughout our lives. In all these years, the Commission has achieved several good results. First, we published a Compendium to more easily explain the contents of the Letter, highlighting its most important aspects. Secondly, we tried to help people really get that message and, thirdly, to put that message into practice. We have also received questions on how to implement the directives of the Letter. We will collect and present these to the Commission to try to find answers illuminated by the Spirit and approved of by the Pope.

As for diplomatic relations between the Holy See and China, it must be said that this element is only part of the overall issue. First of all we must act on our way of life; diplomatic relations come after this and can not absorb the whole picture.

By participating in the Commission I have learned a lot and I'm grateful to the Pope for giving me this opportunity. Another result achieved is better and more fraternal relationship between the official and underground communities. There are still tensions and attacks - especially on the part of the underground community - but they are very small compared to the past.

There have been improvements in diplomatic relations. Perhaps we should pray more to encourage the government to accept a dialogue.

Before the Lunar New Year, AsiaNews made a request to the Chinese government to release some bishops and priests that have disappeared in police custody or have been sentenced to hard labor without charge or trial. We received no response neither from the Beijing government, nor the Chinese embassy in Rome. The Church of Hong Kong has asked many times for their release. What can we do for our persecuted brothers?

I too share your concerns for the fate of our brothers, especially the two elderly bishops, Su Zhimin and Shi Enxiang. But I have a different approach from yours. I would try first to improve my relationship with the Chinese authorities. Once we have gotten to know each other and established a good rapport, I would begin to express my concerns about the imprisonment of these bishops. For example, in 2008 I was invited to attend the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics. I told them I was very happy to have been invited and that the Olympics were a great opportunity of glory for our nation. Once we established a minimum of mutual trust, I told them that being Catholic, I was worried about the Chinese bishops in prison. And I explained to them that this fact is not good for the nation. If these bishops are allowed to enjoy full freedom and respect for their human rights, they could make a major contribution to the nation. At the same time, with their release, China may enjoy the highest of reputations in the international community. We should also pray a lot for these our brothers and never erase them from our memory.