A protester holds a placard that reads 'Do not forget 831 terror attack, truth needs to be seen on CCTV' during a demonstration at a Hong Kong mall on Aug. 30 on the eve of the first anniversary of the Prince Edward MTR station incident when police stormed the station to make arrests during massive anti-government protests. (Photo: AFP)
When I was exploring the Catholic faith eight or nine years ago, in preparation for being received into the Church in Myanmar, I read the entire Catechism of the Catholic Church.
My copy — given to me years before by my friend James Mawdsley, now a priest but at the time an activist released from jail in Myanmar for pro-democracy protests — tells me that prayer and action must be united, and that prayer is a form of activism. It also reminds me of the words of St. Augustine — whose feast day we just celebrated — that “God wills that our desire should be exercised in prayer, that we may be able to receive what he is prepared to give.”
So when Myanmar’s Cardinal Charles Maung Bo, as president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences, issued a call to prayer for Hong Kong last month, I took it seriously. So too did many Catholics in Hong Kong, around the region and the world. We know that, as Catholics, we have a calling to work for justice, freedom and democracy — and that includes work and prayer. That was clear to me from my reading of the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, which Cardinal Bo gave me when I was exploring the faith.
It is understandable if clergy choose — in certain situations — not to take to the streets.
It is understandable if bishops choose not to make statements.
It is understandable if religious opt not to write opinion articles.
But isn’t prayer what clergy, religious and laity do — always, daily, together — for justice and human dignity?
So it is perplexing to me as a relatively young Catholic that the Diocese of Hong Kong has reportedly banned a prayer for the city and its freedoms. They are concerned, it seems, that this particular prayer could be seen as a criticism of an “oppressive” government. But isn’t it the Church’s duty to speak out against oppression? A decision not to — and to actively discourage those who do — symbolizes an intense and sudden fear on the part of the Church as a result of the draconian new national security law, and it marks a significant setback for religious freedom in Hong Kong.
As it happens, I don’t much like some of the wording of the prayer that was proposed for an advertising campaign. According to reports, the proposed prayer was: “Lord, you reward your faithful servants with prosperity, but for servants not of your mind, your justice will come and you will deliver your people from oppression and slavery. As the city of Hong Kong is under threats of abusive control, we pray for your mercy. Amongst adversaries and oppression, we believe your Word and Grace shall bring back the confidence and hope of your people.”
I join with this prayer for mercy against abuse, for justice against repression, and for action against oppression and slavery, but I object to the link to prosperity. Ours is a justice Gospel, a freedom Gospel, a Gospel of human dignity, love and life, but not necessarily a “prosperity Gospel.” Indeed, throughout its history the Church has preached a Gospel of hope and care for the poor, the marginalized and the imprisoned, not an embarrassment of riches.
Nonetheless, I care passionately about the freedom to pray and freedom of expression. And it would appear that, despite Cardinal Bo’s appeal, Hong Kong’s senior clergy feel pressure to silence dissent.
Efforts to silence conscience
Many of us can empathize with fear. None of us who live in the free world with no direct experience of repression can step into the shoes of decision-makers under pressure from authoritarian regimes. But all of us who value such freedoms can stand opposed to efforts to silence conscience.
And that’s why I can’t stay silent in the face of this ban on the proposed prayer for Hong Kong.
The diocese could have negotiated over the wording of the prayer with the groups proposing it. They could have let it go but expressed some slight reservations. They did not need to do the Chinese Communist Party regime’s work for them by forcing the organizers to withdraw it.
To do so is a betrayal of the many brave Catholics in Hong Kong who hold the flag for freedom and human dignity and who face imminent danger. People like the father of the democracy movement Martin Lee, entrepreneur Jimmy Lai, former chief secretary Anson Chan, activist Agnes Chow, retired Cardinal Joseph Zen — all inspiring, courageous, devout Catholics. And their diocese tells them not to pray? Come on.
Can you imagine Pope St. John Paul II taking such a position? Of course not. His spiritual inspiration breathed life into the Solidarity Movement in Poland, which may be why the Chinese Communist Party is scared of prayer.
Can you imagine East Timor’s courageous Bishop Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo, a Nobel laureate, telling his people not to pray for their future? Inconceivable.
Can you imagine the Philippines’ Cardinal Jaime Sin or South Korea’s Cardinal Stephen Kim banning their people from saying a prayer? No.
The Catholic Church is already facing an image problem over its handling of China. The Holy See’s silence in the face of the regime’s atrocities is noted. Pope Francis’ failure to speak out speaks volumes. Its dubious deal with Beijing undermines its moral authority. But banning a prayer for Hong Kong is — by all stretches of the imagination — a step too far.
In the months of intensified repression in Hong Kong, I have turned to some prayers, particularly Holy Mother by Eric Clapton and Luciano Pavarotti. Under Hong Kong’s draconian and absurd new security law, it’s probably illegal. “Holy Mother, where are you?” might be misinterpreted by Beijing’s puppet chief executive Carrie Lam, who has regularly asserted her “motherhood” of Hong Kong status, as a question about her whereabouts or as a threat to Xi Jinping’s self-appointed near-divinity.
For me, as a Catholic of only seven years, prayer fuels my activism. The great poet Alfred Lord Tennyson was right when he said: “More things are wrought by prayer than this world ever dreams of.”
Cardinal Bo, who received me into the Church in Yangon seven years ago, was right to call for prayer for Hong Kong. People in Hong Kong and their friends around the world are right to follow that call. The Diocese of Hong Kong is wrong to silence their prayers. But the one thing we all know is this: God hears our prayers, whether we articulate them through public campaigns or express them in the silence of our hearts. And either way, sooner or later, they will overturn tables in Beijing and Rome.
As Leonard Cohen sang in Anthem: “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.” If the bells of Catholic churches in Hong Kong are no longer willing to ring for freedom, let those bells ring in our hearts in prayer.
Benedict Rogers is a writer and human rights activist, co-founder and chair of Hong Kong Watch and a member of the advisory group of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC). He is the author of ‘From Burma to Rome: A Journey into the Catholic Church’. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.