China Bridge (神州橋樑)_2012/Jun

An interview with Archbishop Savio Hon

Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai is the secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples. Hong Kong-born and 61-years-of-age, he is a theologian and was appointed by Pope Benedict XVI to his current position on 23 December 2010.

He was ordained a bishop by the pope on 5 February 2011 and given the title of archbishop at St. Peter’s Basilica. Before going to Rome, he was teaching at the Holy Spirit Seminary College of Theology and Philosophy in Hong Kong. He had taught in seminaries in mainland China in the 1990s. He was interviewed in Rome by China Bridge, which is prepared at the Holy Spirit Study Centre, on February 17.

A second novitiate

Assuming the role as the secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples in early 2011, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai describes the first 12 months in his new job as a novitiate, but also as a time when he has learned and adjusted well to his new environment.

He said his sense of mission has deepened and his understanding of evangelisation as being the responsibility of every Catholic has broadened.

His office hours run from 8.00am to 2.00pm from Monday to Saturday, but there are regular meetings to respond to requests from local Churches under the congregation’s jurisdiction.

He is responsible for the pastoral outreach of local Churches in more than 1,000 provinces or ecclesiastical districts worldwide.

His office, called a dicastery, coordinates with apostolic nuncios and delegates, as well as local Churches on pastoral plans, formation programmes and funding. “We have to prepare reports of episcopal appointments for the Holy Father,” he explained.

Archbishop Hon is actively involved in the teamwork of “choosing new bishops for one-third of the world,” as described by Rome Reports TV News Agency, as well as submitting proposals to the Holy Father.

He explained that over the past year, he has visited local Churches and attended celebrations in India and Africa, as well as Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macau. “I certainly hope to visit mainland China some day,” he noted.

Three Chinese cardinals

He described the elevation of Bishop John Tong Hon, from Hong Kong, to the College of Cardinals on February 18 as yet another manifestation of the Holy Father’s concern for the Church in China.

“Hong Kong is the diocese with the greatest number of Chinese Catholics. It maintains cordial relationships and sincere contacts with the Church in China,” he said.

Currently, two of the three Chinese cardinals are 80-years-old or above. At 89, Paul Cardinal Shan Kuo-hsi, the former archbishop of Kaohsiung in Taiwan, and 80-year-old Joseph Cardinal Zen-kiun, the former bishop of Hong Kong, can no longer vote in a papal enclave.

Archbishop Hon explained that cardinals are “close collaborators of the Holy Father” and that recent popes have tried to include cardinals from a wide variety of countries.

“At a conclave to elect a new pope, it is hoped that a Chinese cardinal can cast a vote,” he added.

As at March 9, Church statistics show that 124 out of the 212 cardinals in the college do not come from Europe, and nine of the 19 from Asia are eligible to vote in a conclave.

Among the new cardinals created this year, 66-year-old Italian-born Fernando Cardinal Filoni, currently the prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples, is also an expert on Church-in-China affairs.

He led the Holy See Study Mission in Hong Kong from 1992 to 2001, during which time he was the pope’s link person with both the official and unofficial communities of the Church in China.

Illicit ordinations create chaos among Catholics

During Archbishop Hon’s first year in Rome, the Holy See announced on two separate occasions the self-inflicted (automatic) excommunication of a Chinese priest on the mainland for agreeing to be ordained a bishop without the papal approval required by canon 1382.

These events left China-Vatican relations at a low ebb and created chaos among Catholics on the mainland.

Asked if this was the prickliest issue he had faced during the year, Archbishop Hon said the Holy See was able to react quickly, as it had learned of the ordinations in advance and given prior warning to the two candidates of the consequences.

Moreover, the Holy See’s declaration on the correct application of canon 1382 on 6 June 2011, helped clarify the canonical implications of an episcopal ordination which is carried out without papal approval.

The archbishop described not being in communion with the Holy See as a serious matter for any member of the Church.

“Reconciliation and remorse” is most important, the Salesian archbishop commented.

But whether the ordaining bishops were forced to participate in the liturgy or not, the Holy See has the responsibility to find out the exact facts.

He explained that most of the bishops who have officiated as an ordaining bishop at an illicit ordination have responded to the Holy See and asked for pardon from the Holy Father.

In addition, he stressed that there are also cases of priests who have refused ordination in these circumstances and insisted on waiting until the legitimate process for ordination had been fulfilled.

However, Archbishop Hon said it is preferred not to make prior announcements about bishops-elect in mainland China as is done in most countries. “China affairs are very complicated. We don’t want to give further trouble to the candidate or put more pressure on the bishop-elect,” he said.

Concern for missing and jailed clergy in China

In April 2012, Bishop James Su Zhimin, from Baoding, and Bishop Cosmas Shi Enxiang, from Yixian, both of the unofficial Church community, as well as some priests, were still missing or imprisoned in China.

Some of them have been under forced disappearance for more than 10 years and their whereabouts is unknown. In addition, Bishop Martin Wu Qinjing, from Zhouzhi, who belongs to an official Church community, remains under house arrest in Xi’an.

“We receive information from Catholic sources and their families,” Archbishop Hon said. In the past, the Holy See has conveyed information of missing or jailed clergy to the Chinese side, but they always reply that they have “no knowledge of such cases.”

Even when parliamentarians or high profile personalities from various countries have appealed to Beijing to disclose the situation of particular clergy, they have received the same answer.

“If the clergy has committed any offence, the Chinese government can prosecute and bring them to trial. They should not be kept secretly and endlessly,” Archbishop Hon noted.

Impact of the Vatican II in Asia and China

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council (1962 to 1965).

Archbishop Hon said that the thinking of the council on social justice, dialogue with other religions, inculturation and walking with the poor, has had an important influence on the Church in Asia.

However, China was closed to the outside world in the 1950s and 1960s and that made it impossible for the Church there to be influenced by the spirit of the council.

During the time of Vatican II, the theologian pointed out that China was on the brink of the Cultural Revolution (1966 to 1976). The 10-year period of turmoil “destroyed Chinese culture and gravely violated human dignity,” Archbishop Hon said.

“It was only when it reopened its doors to the world in the late 1970s that religion was again allowed to have a public face. For the Catholics, the restoration process is slow and painful,” he noted.

In the 1990s, Catholic theologians from outside China, including Archbishop Hon, were invited to teach at seminaries in the mainland and instilled the teachings of the Vatican Council in the seminarians and Church communities.

Formation programmes in seminaries and convents began to include the spirit of Vatican II. Certainly “it is progressing,” the archbishop said.

However, he explained that the understanding of the Church for some in China is somehow different from Catholic teaching, as it has been affected by external forces, like politics.

Archbishop Hon quoted the 2011 edition of official Church publication, The Catholic Church in China, as advocating the principles of an independent and self-managed Church, as well as electing and ordaining bishops without papal approval. “This is not acceptable to the Catholic Church,” he noted.

Archbishop Hon has advised the bishops and priests in China: “To follow God’s will, to follow one’s own conscience and to maintain one’s own principles. Let us all pray for the Church in China on May 24,” the feast of Mary Help of Christians, the day Pope Benedict XVI declared as the day of prayer for China in his papal letter of 2007, he urged.

Greetings to the Chinese faithful

Finally, in this Year of the Dragon, Archbishop Hon wished all Chinese people good health and fullness of vitality, in addition to being imbued with God’s grace. The Chinese regard themselves as “the descendants of the dragon,” with the spirit of perseverance and a high level of morality.

He prays that the Catholics in China may always be guided, consoled, and strengthened by the Holy Spirit.