Mark Riedemann for Where God Weeps, in cooperation with Aid the Church in Need, recently interviewed Bishop John Tong Hon of Hong Kong. Five percent of Hong Kong residents are Catholic and this number, under his leadership is growing. Bishop John Tong is also a member of the Vatican Commission on China and, as he says, the relations with the government in China are warm and open, but he will not sacrifice what he calls "the bottom line".
Riedemann: Your Excellency, you were born in Hong Kong but you soon moved to China.
Bishop John Tong Hon: ... because the Japanese invaded Hong Kong ...
In this time your family was not Christian, not a Catholic family. How did you come to the Catholic faith in communist China?
My mother studied at a high school run by the Canossian Sisters in Hong Kong. After the war, she decided to join the Catholic Church. She was the first to convert. We all followed shortly. We were all baptised in Guangzhou, in Canton, China. The faith was planted when she was at a Catholic high school.
One inspiration to your own vocation was one such missionary?
After the Second World War, the Nationalists and the Communists in China stated to fight against each other. We lived very close to the Mission Chapel. We were very close to the church and close to the priest. I witnessed every day, the many refugees and wounded soldiers gathering around the church requesting money, food and all kinds of help.
The pastor was an American Maryknoll missionary, and he was filled with Christ's love and this is the inspiration I saw - and it inspired me - his good example.
I told myself, as a young boy, that when I grow up I wish to be like him. In 1951, all foreign missionaries were expelled. The Church in China, in Guangzhou, and the many Catholics told us that it was better for us to leave China. Those Catholics also told me to be an altar boy and perhaps join the seminary. I was too young at that time and I did not have the maturity and the in-depth knowledge of the priesthood, but the good example of our pastor planted the seed of the priestly vocation in my heart. The difficult situation at that time facilitated my decision to be a priest. My parents did not hesitate and readily agreed saying: "Why not, you can leave China, go ahead," and slowly, slowly my vocation deepened.
As the Bishop of Hong Kong you focus on evangelisation. You have chosen two symbols to represent your work on evangelisation: one is a water reservoir and the second the washing of hands. Why are these two symbols important to you in your work of evangelisation and what do these symbols mean?
In the olden days in Hong Kong, we needed the reservoir to have enough water for drinking and washing. It is very important for life. There is a Chinese proverb: "Unless the water is running, it is dead water". It does not become useful. So the reservoir symbolises the receiving of water and at the same time this water has to be used and shared otherwise the water that is unused becomes dead water.
In applying this symbolism to evangelisation, if we receive our faith we have to share our faith with others like the water in the reservoir. In sharing our faith, our faith deepens. The washing of hands is symbolic of mutuality and reciprocity. It is like the "bridge work" I do in China. On one hand, we help the Church in China with the revival of their faith and at the same time we learn from them, from the difficulties they face in practising their faith. So we share our faith with them and we learn from their suffering and this is the symbol of the washing of hands.
Evangelisation has been growing wonderfully in Hong Kong. In previous years you have had about 2000-3000 adult conversions. What is it that is provoking such a positive response among the adults in Hong Kong?
I think conversion depends on the Holy Spirit, on God's grace. No matter how great our efforts, without God's grace the people will not open their hearts. That is the first. Secondly, God always uses us as instruments of evangelisation. Therefore, we should try our best. In a pastoral letter, I told my people about my four dreams. The first is about evangelisation. We should increase the number of converts. The second is vocation. The number of vocations is far from ideal. We need Catholics to have the mission mentality. We need priests to instruct Catholics. The third is about caring for Catholics from other nationalities. Aside from 350,000 Chinese Catholics, we have 180,000 from other nationalities of which two-thirds are women from the Philippines who are in Hong Kong as domestic workers. The fourth is to be a bridge to Catholics in China.
You see the Church in Hong Kong as a sister Church, as a bridge to China. How do you see the role of Hong Kong Catholics with Chinese Catholics?
Cardinal Wu always mentioned that because of our common language and blood, we are of the same nationality. All Catholics should show their concern to China. We should do more because of our cultural and geographical proximity we should be the "bridge" Church.
To put it in a more concrete way what would be the role of a bridge Church? There is some distance and there is always a conflict between the underground and the open Church. The goal of being the bridge is to reconcile among these various groups and to promote full communion of the Church in China with the Universal Church and with the Holy Father. This is our role.