Former Hong Kong bishop John Tong has been appointed as acting head of the city’s Catholic Church, a rare move following the death of the incumbent bishop.

79-year-old Cardinal Tong, who was head of the Hong Kong Catholic Church between 2009 and 2017, has been supportive of a new agreement between the Vatican and China, after diplomatic relations were severed in 1951.

Hong Kong bishop Michael Yeung, who succeeded Tong, died last Friday aged 73. According to the Catholic Code of Canon Law, when the head of the Hong Kong church dies, the auxiliary bishop usually becomes the acting head. However, they may not necessarily become the next bishop.

john tong
Cardinal John Tong. File photo: Hkdavc, via Youtube.

It was announced on Monday that Tong had been appointed to the temporary position of “apostolic administrator” by the Vatican on Saturday. The church said Tong will govern the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong whilst the vacancy remains open, until further notice is given from the Vatican.

“You may be shocked by this news – I am actually shocked as well,” Tong said at a Monday press conference. “But I know this is only a transitional period. It will be a short-term role.”

Asked if his appointment was a rare move, Tong said he did not know of any similar appointments before. He said Yeung’s death was sudden and he only retired from the role as bishop 18 months ago. However, he said he believed he was invited to take on the role owing to his 25 years of service to the church in management roles.

“As a priest, as a bishop, we have to obey the orders of the church,” he said.

Catholic Church Hong Kong notice
Photo: HKFP.

In 2017, Tong wrote that it was not against the teachings of the church for Beijing to require bishops to be patriotic. He told the press that the Hong Kong church wants to act as a bridge between the Vatican and Beijing.

New head

Tong said he believed the chances of him being re-appointed as Hong Kong bishop were “extremely low,” as he will turn 80 this year, when church rules would forbid him from taking any top roles.

Currently, liberal-leaning cleric Joseph Ha is the only auxiliary bishop in Hong Kong. Ha “did not receive a blessing from Beijing,” Apple Daily cited sources within the Hong Kong church as saying.

John Tong Joseph Ha
From left: John Tong and Joseph Ha. Photo: RTHK Screenshot.

Ha told reporters that he was also shocked by Tong’s appointment but understood the decision owing to the urgency of the matter: “Now I see it, it is a very good arrangement,” he said.

Ha added that an apostolic administrator was equivalent to a special envoy of the Pope appointed to locations at critical times such as Syria and Guam – where the bishop was removed by the Vatican for sexual abuse – who has immense power over church matters such as personnel issues.

Asked whether he was blessed by Beijing, Ha said he was “often blessed by the Lord.”

“I am not sure if I count as liberal, but I am happy to listen to others,” he said.

Tong said that it was not a concern as to whether Beijing would accept the new bishop, “because we always said that the church is mainly concerned by our religious matters, without paying attention to the political aspect or political affairs.”

The Holy See and China reached a provisional agreement last September, under which Pope Francis recognised seven bishops initially ordained by Beijing without the Vatican’s approval. They had previously been excommunicated by the Vatican.

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng

Kris Cheng is a Hong Kong journalist with an interest in local politics. His work has been featured in Washington Post, Public Radio International, Hong Kong Economic Times and others. He has a BSSc in Sociology from the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Kris is HKFP's Editorial Director.