Evolution of the Diocese of Hong Kong from 1949 to 1997

-          A talk delivered by Fr. Louis Ha at the monthly “MRI Forum” organized by the Macau Ricci Institute (20 March, 2007).


The 48 years before 1997 have witnessed the Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong evolving from a traditional pre-Vatican Church into a modern Church putting on itself the roles of priest, king and prophet. It has also become a fully indigenized Church with its local leadership after more then 150 years of missionary administration. This evolution, among other things, is directly influenced by five events which happened successively one decade after another. They are in the 1950s: the influx of refugees from mainland, in 1960s: the Ecumenical Council Vatican II, in the 1970s: the localization of the Church leadership and liturgy, in the 1980s: the awakening of political awareness and in the years leading to 1997: the emigration movement of Hong Kong people including many Catholics.


1) The influx of refugees in the 1950s

Obviously, the harsh economical situation and political persecution after the communist revolution are the main causes of the influx. For the Catholics, they had the problem of religious freedom.

Such kind of emergency both provided missionaries coming out from mainland and attracted assistance from the outside world to Hong Kong. The Diocese herefore was able to respond promptly in organizing urgent relief  for the immediate  material and educational needs of refugees in cooperation with the government and foreign relief agencies. The work, although humanitarian in  intention, was political in a sense and proselytizing in another. The fact is the Catholic population increased from under 50 thousand in the beginning of 1950s to over 150 thousand in 1960. Seven Church stations were added within the year 1957 to cope with the suddenly increased Catholic population. These stations were mostly run by American Maryknoll Fathers who had good connections with sources providing relief materials from outside.


Educational work which the Church had already acquired a good reputation in Hong Kong from the beginning of the colony, was necessary both for the recently converted Catholic children and for the many members of the religious and missionary congregations  who were also amongst the refugees. They too needed a working field,


Other than pastoral and educational work, Church people were also involved in providing social services to family, vocational problems. Through the effort of Msgr. Charles Vath, the donation of German Church was channeled in building churches and social centres which led finally to the setting up of Caritas in 1958.


A very special contribution from a member of the Church towards helping the livelihood of farmers was the setting up of the “Wholesale Vegetable Marketing Organization” to protect vegetable growers of New Territories from the exploitation of middlemen. This work was done by Fr. Thomas Ryan S.J. (1889-1971) who was employed by the government in implimenting the project. Other similar structures were also set up by Church people such as the Credit Union at Sham Shui Po in 1964 by Fr. John Collins S.J. (1912-1997) and the Industrial relations institute in 1968  by Fr. Patrick McGovern S.J. (1920-1984). The former gave people in need of cash a way to get it and the latter encourage people to get back the right that belonged to them.


The quick expansion of the Church work in this period later leads to the shortage of personnel when not enough people responded to the call to religious vocation. It is natural that emergency situation does not respect former planning. But the aftermath of emergency needs much good follow up.


2) The years of ecumenical council (1962-65) and its consequence

The 1960s were not years of prosperity for Hong Kong. But the world situation that asked for change from tradition and old burdens did make resonance even amid people struggling for survival here. The spirit of Catholics was waken up by the heated discussions in Rome on Church identity, on the Word of God, on Liturgy and on religious freedom.


The timely completion of the Bible in Chinese in 1968 by the Franciscans in Hong Kong was essential in supplying food for strength in responding the demands of the Council to start the liturgical reform and to encourage lay participation. The Diocesan Council for Lay Apostolate set up in 1959 began to function more actively in Church matters which was symbolized by having a Hong Kong lay observer to the Ecumenical Council. Liturgy in local dialect and sacred music in Chinese pushed the re-definition of the concept of sacred and Church.


The Catholic youth became proud to be part of the student movement. The Hong Kong Federation of Catholic Students, set up in 1961 and assisted by Fr. James Hurley S.J., made the firsts breakthrough during the riot of 1967 by appealing to the public to maintain public facilities left vacant because of strike. Part of the students came out from bystanders to actually man the trams of Hong Kong through the danger of stepping on explosive hidden somewhere during the riot. This kind of action increased the sense of belonging to the society as well as to the Church in the lives of these youth .


3) The localization of the Church leadership in the 1970s,

After working for about one century the Italian missionaries (PIME) voluntarily and graciously stepped back to support the local leadership of the Diocese in the person of Bishop Francis Hsu in 1969. There are thousands of reasons to procrastinate such transfer, however they preferred to go in search of newer ways for fulfilling their missionary vocation rather than just stay in the same position of command.


In 1970-71 the Diocesan convention was held. The name “convention” was chosen instead of “synod” because by avoiding the canonical name of “synod” the laity could more freely participate and the agenda could be more comprehensive. It was an education and reflection process for lay participation in Church matters. The laity also showed their maturity both in discussion and in participation. The various Commissions set up after the convention  provided chances for them to join. One of the most out-standing commissions was the Justice and Peace Commission which was established in 1977. It has developed into a very solid group of people dedicated in promoting the basic equity between all human beings by analyzing social issues and bravely defending the minority against unjust treatments and by expressing its position after reflection according to Catholic social teachings, government policies and ordinances.


During this period, the Diocese became the centre of media attention for two incidences. The first one was the signing of a plea by Bishop Hsu for the life of a man sentenced to capital. Several weeks later he wrote a letter defending his action in the Kung Kao Po just four days before he died of a heart attack on 23 May, 1973.


The next incidence concerned the Precious Blood Golden Jubilee School which led to the closure of the school in 1978. Bishop Wu was accused by the public of being insensitive to the serious consequences created  by the long process of the incidence.


By the first incidence, although its logic of an announcing the intention beforehand might not be accepted by the public, however the public cradles an expectation of justice from the Church and its leader. By the second incidence, the public noticed the failure from the Church to live up to that standard of justice. Justice became a double-edged sword. It both builds up authority and tramps it down.


4) the awakening of political awareness in the 1980s

The modernization of China at the end of 1970s drove Hong Kong people to face political issues in China seriously. The initializing of the Sino-British joint declaration in 1984 further marked the decisive turning point in the mind of Hong Kong people towards China. The two years of discussions between the two governments before that initializing and the six years of drafting the Basic Law up to its promulgation in 1990 dominated every minute nerve of the Hong Kong.


The Catholic Diocese could not avoid being part of this atmosphere. It played the role of a bridge between Vatican and China, between Taiwan and Mainland, between the underground Church and the official Church in China. It accepted the official invitations from mainland to visit China. Bishop Wu led the tours in 1985 and 1986. The elevation of Bishop Wu to the cardinal college in 1988 and hence became a representative of Vatican might have blocked further invitation. The sympathetic stand of the diocese toward the student movement at Tiananmen in 1989 might be another cause.


Meanwhile, the diocese was eager to seek support, a spiritual one, from outside. In 1986, Bishop Wu sent a letter to all bishops of the world asking them to pray for Hong Kong and the Church in Hong Kong.


5) Migration movement before 1997


When Bishop Wu wrote his pastoral exhortation in 1989, entitled “March into the bright decade”, the year 1997 was clearly on his mind. Although quite optimistic in tone, the exhortation suggested the setting up of Basic Christian Communities in preparation for the worst eventuality when churches and priests were not available to Christians.

The Catholic population dropped from its apex of 270 thousand in 1985 to less than 230 thousand in 1998. Many left for greener pasture in overseas. The emigration was so acute that for a moment there were lack of lay leaders and even Sunday collection diminished significantly. However, the diocese and its clergy firmly maintained its position to stay in Hong Kong notwithtstanding the current of the time.



The irony of these 48 years under discussion is that it started with the influx and ended with the emigration. However, Hong Kong has not been just a water pipe letting the water pass from the entrance to the exit.  The Catholic diocese has experienced the process of maturing. The Catholics came back. The local clergy and lay leadership forms the main part of the diocese.


One of the characteristics of the diocese is the presence of various religious communities during its evolution. In fact, from 1955 onward, the number of Missionary societies and religious orders staying in Hong Kong has never dropped below 30. Their members engaged in local pastoral work, making preparation for entering China and building up connections in China. Today, 45 missionary societies and religious orders are present in Hong Kong, marking the highest number. They are all ready to go inside China.


Today the government might not as friendly as before, but this helps the local Church better fulfill its role of a prophet without regards of favour.