Stephen Chow SJ was appointed a bishop of Hong Kong last year. In his interview Szilárd Szőnyi discussed the Chinese face of Christianity with him. The interview was made for the 2022 autumn issue of the quarterly magazine of the Hungarian Province of the Society of Jesus, titled M.I.N.D.
– Mainland China and Hong Kong have long been a destination for Christian missionaries. What are the sources of your vocation as a Jesuit, and how did you find your way into the Society of Jesus?
– I went to a Jesuit sponsored secondary school, Wah Yan College, Hong Kong. There I met some Jesuits whom I admired and would like to be one of their companions. I can say besides the divine source for my Jesuit vocation, the other human sources are their loving kindness, learnedness, humanity, and spiritual richness.
– One of the first challenges of Christian missionaries in China is to explain what they mean by “God”. In a country where Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, folk religion and several other beliefs have shaped people’s thinking about the transcendent, there is not an ultimate name for Christian deity. That being said, how can Chinese language convey Christian notions as best as it can?
– We, Catholics address God as the “Lord of Heaven” 「天主」, or 「上帝」the “Supreme One in Heaven” for Protestants. Both meanings are similar with no significant distinction in meaning. However, the Chinese ways of addressing God have been sources of division between the Catholics and Protestants in the Chinese speaking world. In fact, the Chinese culture has the concept of a Being in Heaven （老天爺） since ancient time. However, this Being has no particular images but a divine presence overseeing the world.
– Could you describe the Chinese face of Christianity, mentioning an example or two that the local concept of being a follower of Christ is characterized by?
– Christianity is seen as a western religion. So Christians are those who are following a foreign faith and way of life. Since Hong Kong has been a British colony for a century, Christianity is no stranger to the people of Hong Kong. In fact, because of the many schools run by the Catholic or other Christian Churches, many of our students who are not Christians also know about Jesus Christ and have picked up Chritian values from their education. Students of Catholic and Christian schools are generally perceived to be better behaved and educated. Of course, this impression is only a rough overall perception.
– Western Christianity, especially the Jesuits, has long emphasized the importance of inculturation, that is, to adapt the way our religion is practiced, to the local customs and traditions. Can you tell us some examples as to how it is manifested in China and/or Hong Kong?
– The most famous example is the Chinese Rite promoted by Fr. Matteo Ricci. The rite allows Chinese Catholics to honor their ancestors according to the local custom, e.g., offering incense, bowing to or even kneeling before the grave or the tablet bearing the names of their respective ancestors. Another accommodation in Hong Kong is the waiving from fasting and abstinence on Ash Wednesday when it falls within the first few days of the Lunar New Year. However, Catholics are expected to observe the Day through other spiritual means and charitable acts. Furthermore, many of the Gospel values, such as compassion, honor our parents, no stealing and killing, etc., are similar to those celebrated in the Confucian and Taoist traditions, especially the Confucians. Hence, Christian values are not really that foreign and odd to the educated Chinese.
– Let’s put it the other way round: what impact has Chinese traditions and beliefs had on Christianity?
– Let’s say the Chinese tradition forces us to reflect honestly who we are and should be as Catholics in the Chinese soil. Which one comes first and when? Chinese or Catholics. How to marry these two identities together into one, or keeping the two distinctively in a creative tension?
– Before your appointment last year, it took more than two years to fill the vacant seat of your late predecessor. As US Jesuit’s America magazine put it, “the Vatican has taken time to find the man it considers best suited for this challenging and difficult post”. What are the most important challenges and difficulties you have had to face since last May?
– Mending rifts created during the Anti-Extradition Bill movement in 2019. Healing and building up trust with our alienated young people within and without the Church. Our future will be grim if our young people are not with us or going about without hopes/dreams. Building positive working relationships with the different departments of the Hong Kong government and the local representatives of the Chinese government.This is critical if we want to continue our mission with the needed space and freedom.
Coming out of the pandemic. We need to bring our faithful back to their parishes after a long time of online liturgies. Some are obviously very comfortable with passive online participation….. But this is destructive to our communal faith.
Then the renewal of the Sino-Vatican agreement this October. Its outcome will have significant impacts on the Catholic Church in Hong Kong.
– Referring to the four decades of Hungary, having been suffered under Communist rule before 1990, there is a saying over here that a church under pressure is inclined to be more vibrant than in complete freedom and prosperity. From the Chinese perspective of yours, can you verify or not the truth in this observation?
– I would hope so. But the anticipation with fears and anxiety could be paralyzing if not handled positively. However, I do have faith in the famous Irish adage, “when the going gets tough, the tough gets going.” We need to be positive and strong. But staying away from a habitual catastrophic mentality and not to invite attacks from others unnecessarily.
– In our Communist times, we had an archbishop, who was famous for his “policy of small steps”, meaning his intentions not to speak against the one party system, but, at the expense of constant compromises, achieve as much as possible. Can you see the chance for small or even greater steps to make in Hong Kong and China in order to safeguard or at least expand freedom of the Catholic church?
– I believe in the value and importance of dialogues, which includes empathic listening. We should not assume any parties are evil or are out to destroy the Church in Hong Kong. At least not up to this moment. But I believe the Church in Hong Kong should be a bridge, connecting parties including the Church for deeper mutual understanding, exploring rooms for collaboration and/or reconciliation for the common good, and to expand our vision for a farther/deeper and wider vista whenever possible. There are many people of goodwill around but not enough trust to connect them. I hope we can play this role with respect and hope in the good nature of humanity which has its divine origin.
– In your coat of arms as a bishop, one of the main elements is a bridge. What bridges would you like to build and between what banks?
– Please refer to my previous answer. Between what banks? Any banks which would not resist engaging in true dialogic relationships.