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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Fr. Stephen Chan, O.F.M. Pastor of St. Bonaventure Parish Hong Kong

by Mary Moran Washington, DC

Fr. Stephen Chan, OFM has emerged as a leading cleric working to address conflicts in Hong Kong and providing pastoral care to those involved in the protests that people are witnessing daily throughout the world. Fr. Chan has been a consultant to the Hong Kong Diocesan Justice and Peace Commission for over fifteen years. He co-teaches on Social Teaching of the Church at the Holy Spirit Seminary College in Hong Kong. He also serves as one of the translators of the Compendium of the Social Teaching of the Church. He is a speaker and writer for several seminars and meetings, related to social matters in Hong Kong. Fr. Chan is a pastor of the Franciscan St. Bonaventure parish in the Central Kowloon District of Hong Kong. (In the above photo, Our Lady of Angels is prominent because Fr. Chan depends on her protection for his parish.)

Note: Throughout the summer, people around the world have watched in disbelief as hundreds of thousands of people take to the streets of Hong Kong to protest against the “Extradition Bill,” creating unprecedented crises since the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Much has been written about the extradition proposal and people are encouraged to read and study this bill. (See background on Bill: Cardinal Tong has issued a public appeal to resolve the tension in Hong Kong. Cardinal Tong

Below, Fr. Stephen Chan, a Franciscan pastor, and scholar provides an inside look at the Catholic social justice activities and issues direct from Hong Kong.

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Mary: You have been a Franciscan now for over 45 years, serving the people of Hong Kong. You are known as the right person, at the right time, at the right place to lead social justice activities, teach Catholic social justice principles, and provide spiritual guidance. How did you come to all these?

Fr. Stephen: I am just one of those clergies in social mission. There are so many before me and they inspire me a lot. For me, the turning point is Saint John-Paul ll’s ‘’ Centesimus Annus, 1991” which opened my vision to the wonders of the social teaching of the Church. I then read through the entire corpus of Papal Encyclicals on the subject, including those shorter and minor ones. During my seminarian years, the papal social teaching document was not yet an independent subject and I thought God led me to this treasure. The sovereignty of Hong Kong went back to China in 1997 and I was better equipped with the teaching of the Church.

Mary: Since 1997 several bishops have led the Hong Kong Diocese in succession on the front lines providing assistance and inspiring people around the world to keep religious freedom, democracy, and free press in Hong Kong. You work with these leaders regularly – what has inspired you about their leadership?

Fr. Stephen: A bishop always has a much wider audience and gets media coverage; his priests gather around him to show the oneness of the Church. Everyone is very caring, kind and well respected as a shepherd. I must mention Cardinal Zen in particular.

Cardinal Zen, though retired, is still seen as the strongest spiritual leader, not only among Catholic activists but non-Catholics as well. I see in him three major qualities of a Catholic social activist. First, his/her prophetic role cannot be separated from a servant’s role. Cardinal Zen has always been one of the first persons identifying the traps and dangers in social new legislation and policies that endanger the rights of the people and the Church. These legislative actions usually cloth themselves under attractive promises. The Cardinal’s voice is always strong. But he never neglects charity, eg. visiting the prison and supporting activists facing prosecution. He requires Catholic schools to admit children without residence papers who otherwise would be denied education by the Government…. … to mention only a few. This is the second quality. Thirdly, Cardinal Zen is serious in the promotion and participating in devotions. I understand these three qualities crucial to parishes involved in social movements.

Mary: As pastor of St. Bonaventure Church, located at Po Kong Village Road, and director of the Franciscan priory in the Wong Tai Sin area of Hong Kong (one of the eight local districts where people are rallying), you’ve been right in the middle of thousands who are protesting daily for democracy. You have provided pastoral care to unknown thousands. (Photos of peaceful parishioner protesters can be seen on your parish website at Central Kowloon, a main area of tourism for those coming from the Mainland of China and elsewhere, has been targeted by protesters. How are you providing pastoral support for parishioners and protesters?

Fr. Stephen: I follow the example of Cardinal Zen. A parish is a random sample of the city’s population and the faithful with diverse political view attend. In worship, the pulpit cannot be a place to promote social actions. There are two suitable places: 1. making good use of the intercessions, allocate one intention for the concrete need of the city, with a view to social justice. 2. I can always say something before the dismissal, say, a few minutes, on issues facing the public, together with principles of social teaching, and thus calling for some actions, which people can join free or give support in prayer. Of course, I have charities in the parish, where non-activists can comfortably be involved. Third, Benediction, Eucharistic adoration and Friday evening prayers are among the regular devotions. Others include the rosary and the way of the cross, depending on the liturgical seasons. Only a well-balanced practice may sustain social actions for long.

Mary: What are a few key characteristics of your parish?

Fr. Stephen: Here are a few things about St. Bonaventure Church. The parish area, Tsz Wan Shan, is considered one of the low-income areas, quite densely populated. The area ranks bottom third in poverty index among the 19 districts in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is economically doing well among Asian countries and so lower-income families in Hong Kong still got a reasonable living, only that they work longer hours and live in smaller houses and of course, children got less support besides those provided by the school.

St. Bonaventure Church functions like a usual parish, what I can say about its social services are:

it runs the Franciscan kitchen, in co-operation with the secular Franciscans, providing weekdays free dinner. It provides daycare to preschool kids and it provides after-school support to primary school students. Volunteer parishioners bring the Eucharist to home-stay elderly and associated spiritual support. (This is done by all parishes in Hong Kong actually)

Mary: What do you learn as pastor after quite several years caring and supporting social justice?

Fr. Stephen: Social justice is not an added burden to my pastoral duties. It helps me grow and I am grateful for this opportunity. I see the faces of the Liar which led me to the mystery of evil, leading in turn to the mystery of the suffering and victorious Christ. I learn to accept failures after failures, defeats, and defeats on the part of people (me included) working for a democratic future. What counts is not battles but the outcome of the war, which our faith and hope in the Almighty lie. I am deeply consoled that after a defeat, I see people grow stronger in faith and personal maturity. This is the God-given reward even in our many defeats.

Social justice is also an area where people, Catholics and Protestants and non- believers come together. I see and witness the goodness, sacrifice, and wisdom of so many non-Catholic people. I admire in them that we all are so loved by our common heavenly Father.

Mary: As to Vatican-Beijing relations, Hong Kong is seen as the gateway from the Vatican to Beijing. Hong Kong Catholic hierarchy has worked hard to keep the door open and build a friendship with Chinese officials so that Hong Kong hierarchy can pass messages of the Holy See to the Chinese government, and bring expectations to the Holy See if possible. How is this working?

Fr. Stephen: Already in the 70s, the pope called the Catholic Church outside China to be a bridge. As I remember, the hierarchy in Taiwan and Hong Kong both understood themselves as being invited. At that time, the clergy made use of opportunities reaching out to the Catholic Church in China, such as introducing the post-Vatican ll reforms, the construction of Church buildings, and keeping contact with individual bishops, priest and parishes. In recent years, the role of Hong Kong as a middle person between the Vatican and China is waning. These two authorities do have channels of communication direct.

Mary: Many are concerned about the encroachment of Beijing into Hong Kong. Much discussion is occurring regarding new regulations governing religion in China that were approved in April 2017 and took effect February 1, 2018. What are a few main thoughts you have about these regulations governing religion as the Catholic Church in China and Hong Kong moves forward? (Complete set of new China regulations governing religion may be found here: Religious Affairs Regulations – 2017; State Council of the People’s Republic of China - may be set to Google Translate for English translation.)

Fr. Stephen: First, I see in these regulations that the Beijing regime requires the Catholic bishops to be middle-level administrators of the Government. The qualities listed for a Catholic leader is the same as a Party’s official. In reality, the bishops are expected to act likewise, such as not having the option to remain silent in public affairs. The ‘words’ are provided to them, as to all levels of the Government officials. The bishop’s pastoral letters or open writings need be submitted to the civil authority and they will put in words of loyalty here and there.

My second observation, and the observation of all, is that since these new regulations and the subsequent Sino-Vatican memorandum (2018), Beijing has exercised stricter control over the Church, such as demolition of crosses (even Church buildings), forbidding people under 18 to go to Church, forbidding all religious activities and functions outside approved premises. Priests not registered with the Government are forbidden to exercise priestly functions (they sometimes refuse registration to underground priests-applicants).

The new regulation is part of the Nation’s policy to put every control under the name of ‘law’, which means every suppression or arrest finally receive a legal justification. If there is none, they make one. The clearest case was that they enacted a new law with retrospective effect a few years ago to the Hong Kong government to disqualify 8 elected legislators.

Thus said, I am still confident that many Catholics in China are keeping faith in their heart. There may not be that many and they cannot get any visible support from the universal Church. People outside should keep them more dearly in prayer. These people keep the Church surviving in China.

Mary: Thank you so much for shedding light from an inside perspective on the challenges facing Hong Kong.


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