Earlier this week the new Catholic bishop of Hong Kong, John Tong, commented that – unlike his outspoken predecessor – he would not be joining the Ti@nm@n Square vigils in Hong Kong this year. In response a few commentators are now suggesting that Tong – unlike his predecessor – will be a less political bishop. Perhaps so, but I think it more accurate to suggest that Tong will be a more diplomatic bishop than Zen, especially in dealing with the CCP and China’s religious authories. In fact, this has long been his reputation among those who follow Chinese Catholic affairs. A nice example of his subtle and discrete character and diplomacy can be found in my August 2007 profile of Shanghai’s bp Jin Luxian. The story opens in 1985, when Jin was under extreme pressure to accept an illicit ordination to be an auxiliary bishop of Shanghai from the Chinese religious authorities:
Few inside or outside of Shanghai believed that it was possible for Jin to remain a faithful Catholic-at least, a Roman Catholic-if he accepted the ordination. Yet Jin believed that to reject the appointment would not only place the seminary at risk but also open the Shanghai hierarchy to a priest more inclined toward the CPA and the Communist Party. Reluctantly, he accepted, and he says that on the day of the ordination, he was in need of “consolation.”
It arrived from an unlikely source: With Pope John Paul’s knowledge and tacit approval, Laurence Murphy, a past president of Seton Hall University and an informal intermediary and adviser to the Vatican on the Chinese Church, and Father John Tong, now the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong, attended the ceremony. “That was kind of delicate,” Murphy told me, recalling that St. Ignatius was filled with “brass from the CPA.” Jin concedes that there might have been serious consequences had the CPA been aware of a Vatican-approved presence, and he admitted that Murphy and Tong had attended the ordination only after I asked him to confirm Murphy’s account. “It was not encouraged by me,” he said defensively. “I did not apply for that.” After a pause, he added, “They encouraged me, and it was helpful and consolation.”
It is to Tong’s discrete credit (and Murphy’s, too) that this delicate mission wasn’t revealed for two decades.
A couple of quick, final notes. First, I had the pleasure of meeting Tong exactly once, at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, when he was still the auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong. At the time, he had a corner office and an open door that provided him with a clear view of the lobby. I arrived in late afternoon to purchase some books, and while I made the transaction, I noticed Tong watching me from his desk, obviously curious as to why – or who – needed a backpack full of Holy Spirit Study Centre publications (I was working on my Jin profile). As I took a seat to stuff the books into my pack, Tong finally rose from his desk and approached me with a handshake and we had a pleasant ten minute conversation. Among other impressions, I left feeling as if I’d just met a very nice man with a keen awareness of what’s happening around him.
And finally, according to a very reliable source who knew him when he spent time at the University of Notre Dame a few years ago: Tong is a very hard-nosed competitor on the basketball court. Seriously.