After more than two years of intense negotiations with the Chinese Communist authorities, the Holy See has just appointed the new bishop of Hong Kong. A compromise candidate, as the former British colony comes under intense pressure from Beijing, and the Sino-Vatican deal struggles to bear fruit.
It is with sobriety that the diocese of Hong Kong announced on its digital portal, on May 17, 2021, the decision of the Supreme Pontiff to appoint Fr. Stephen Chow Sau-yan as bishop of the former British colony returned to China in 1997. An overdue appointment, since the diocese had been vacant for almost two and a half years.
A delay that can be explained by bitter negotiations, at a time when the hold of the Beijing Red Mandarins over Hong Kong is growing more and more oppressive.
According to information published in The Pillar on May 17, the Rome’s choice initially fell on Msgr. Joseph Ha Chi-shing: auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, this conventual Franciscan already knew the diocese perfectly well.
Nevertheless, his support for the pro-democracy movement, strongly suppressed by Xi Jinping's police, did not work in his favor, and the Holy See was forced to back down in the face of strong opposition from Beijing.
A second candidate in the person of Fr. Peter Choy Wai-ma was being contemplated. Last February, the Catholic News Agency announced the upcoming appointment of the current vicar general of the Chinese enclave diocese as the “expected choice.”
Rome had to back down a second time, Fr. Choy being too favorable to Beijing. His appointment would have been seen as a betrayal of the Catholics in Hong Kong. In September 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen had brought a letter to Rome begging the Pope not to name Fr. Choy, in substance saying, “he would divide Catholics.”
The Holy See Press Room Bulletin therefore put an end to the suspense: Fr. Stephen Chow will succeed Bishop Yeung.
Born in Hong Kong in 1959, Stephen Chow entered the Society of Jesus in 1984, after obtaining a bachelor's and master's degree in psychology from the University of Minnesota (USA).
Ordained a priest in 1994, he ministered in Hong Kong at the Jesuit college of Wah Yan, then as a professor at the University, as well as at the diocesan seminary of the Holy Spirit.
Since January 1, 2018, he has been Provincial of the Chinese Province of the Society of Jesus and since 2017 he has been a member of the Diocesan Education Council.
Vatican sources confirmed to The Pillar that Fr. Chow's appointment was the result of a year of intense negotiations with Chinese authorities. But also of persuasion, because Fr. Chow initially refused such a high risk promotion.
The best thing for this priest has done is to stay in the background politically, refraining from openly supporting the pro-democracy movement or showing sympathy for the Beijing regime.
“If there is anyone capable of squaring the circle between the intersecting priorities of the diocese, the continental government, and the Holy See, it is Fr. Stephen,” comments a priest close to the new bishop.
One thing remains certain: Fr. Chow is the ideal candidate for Rome to illustrate the strategy of compromise - a balancing act, the most critical would say - which for the time being governs the fragile relations between the Holy See and Beijing, the fruits of which still remain to be seen.