As they celebrate the New Year and enter the Year of the Dragon, Chinese Catholics have additional reasons for rejoicing: Pope Benedict XVI will make Hong Kong’s Bishop John Tong Hon a cardinal on February 18 and, for the first time in history, there will be three Chinese in the College of Cardinals.
Tong is the seventh Chinese cardinal in the history of the Church, and the first to be born in Hong Kong.
A quiet, scholarly, reserved, spiritual man, he spent ten of the first twelve years of his life in mainland China and has visited there many times since.
A student of Chinese philosophy, he gained a Master’s degree in the subject at the Chinese University in Hong Kong in the 1970s, and later taught it in the seminary. A source who knows him well says this mild-mannered man has absorbed much of the Confucian and Taoist way of thinking, and this is reflected in his style of leadership.
Since 1980 he has been Director of the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, the leading Catholic research centre on the Church in China, and is one of the most informed people on this subject. He is also a member of the China Commission established by Pope Benedict.
A prudent man, with no illusions about the Communist regime in Beijing, he participated in negotiations with the authorities there prior to the British handover of Hong Kong in 1997. Indeed, this bishop and basketball player was one of the religious leaders officially invited to the opening of the Olympic Games in Beijing on 6 August 2008.
He firmly believes that “only dialogue and negotiation can resolve conflicts” as he told Fr Gianni Criviller in a lengthy interview for Asianews, reproduced in Tripod (Hong Kong, 2009). At the same time he insists that Beijing has to “allow complete religious freedom and human rights to all our brothers and sisters in the Church”, if it wants normal relations with the Catholic Church. As cardinal, he can play a significant role by helping bridge the gap between the Holy See and the Chinese authorities.
Bishop Tong considers himself “unworthy and privileged” to be named cardinal, he told Hong Kong’s Sunday Examiner, January 9. He regards this honor as “a sign of the Pope’s great love and concern for the Catholic Church in China, and an encouragement for the efforts of the Hong Kong diocese in its efforts to promote reconciliation and full communion between the China Church and the Universal Church.”
Born to non-Catholic parents on 31 July 1939, the first of three children (two boys and one girl), when he was two years old when the Japanese invaded Hong Kong and his family had to move to Macau (his mother’s birthplace). Soon after, however, to ensure his safety, his parents sent him to stay with his paternal grandmother in a village in Guangdong province, mainland China (where his father was born). He remained there until the age of six.
After the war ended on 15 August 1945, he was reunited with his family in Canton, and started primary school. But then his father, an accountant, fell ill with tuberculosis, and his mother had to work as a teacher to support the family. “Those were very hard times. It was in those days that I learned endurance and tolerance”, he told Criviller.
After the war, his mother, who had studied in a Catholic school, decided to become a Catholic and was baptized. In the following years the whole family followed suit.
In those years, the Communists and the Nationalists engaged in fierce fighting in northern and central China, and many wounded, destitute soldiers sought refuge in Canton where the Tong family lived. The young John witnessed the compassion and love shown by the Catholic missionaries (American Maryknollers) in Canton to these people, and was greatly impressed. His parish priest, who introduced him to Catholic primary school, was among them and his example inspired him to become a priest.
When the Communists came to power in China, the priests suggested it would be better for him to go to Macau to pursue his vocation. His parents trusted the Church and agreed that it would be good for him to leave China, he told Criviller.
Tong entered Macau seminary in 1951, at the age of 12. His father, 42, died in the mainland the following year, and his beloved grandmother died some time later. After six years in Macau, he moved to the Holy Spirit seminary, Hong Kong, to study philosophy and theology. He was sent to Rome to study theology in 1964, where the Second Vatican Council was still in session. Ordained priest by Pope Paul VI, January 1966, he later gained a doctorate in theology from the Pontifical Urban University.
On his return to Hong Kong, he went to live at the seminary and has resided there ever since. From 1970 onwards, he taught theology and Chinese philosophy there. In 1979, Bishop (later cardinal) Wu appointed him head of the newly created diocesan Holy Spirit Study Centre, a post he has held to this day. In 1992, the cardinal made him one of the Vicar Generals of the diocese in 1992, a post he held for seventeen years.
Pope John Paul II appointed him auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, December 1996. Pope Benedict named him coadjutor bishop, January 2008, and bishop on 15 April 2009, after Cardinal Zen’s resignation.
When he receives his red hat on February 18, there will then be three Chinese in the College of Cardinals: Tong, Zen and Paul Shan Kuo-hsi (Taiwan). But Tong is the only one under the age of 80, with the right to vote in the conclave to elect the next pope.