Hong Kong Catholics mourn bishop amid political struggles

HONG KONG — Hong Kong Catholics mourned the loss of their bishop with a Mass on Thursday night amid a low-key struggle among clergy over reconciliation between the Vatican and Beijing.

Bishop Michael Yeung died last week from liver failure after less than two years as head of the diocese of more than 500,000 Catholics in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.

More than 1,000 parishioners gathered at the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception to attend Mass and pass by Yeung's open casket.

Yeung's predecessor, Cardinal John Tong, was brought out of retirement by the Vatican to serve as interim administrator, blocking the appointment of Yeung's natural successor, Bishop Joseph Ha, the highest-ranking serving bishop who is known to be critical of the Chinese government.

"While we obey the Vatican's appointment, I hope the bishop's successor will uphold our values as Hong Kong Catholics and won't bow to China's demands," said John Cheung, 45, who served as altar boy to Yeung in his home parish.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, a vocal opponent of attempts by Beijing and the Vatican at rapprochement, presided at the Mass.

Zen last celebrated Mass in November to commemorate an underground priest in mainland China, Wei Heping. Wei, who founded an underground seminary, was found dead in a river about 720 kilometers (450 miles) from his home diocese of Ningxia after he had left for a catechetical meeting in northeastern China. Authorities maintain that his death was a suicide, but his family and flock reject that conclusion.

The Holy See has in recent months stepped up efforts at rapprochement with China's Communist leadership, which demands the right to appoint bishops and requires that Catholics worship only in Communist Party-recognized congregations.

Pope Francis on Monday praised the provisional agreement between the Holy See and Beijing reached last September on bishop appointments, calling it the "result of a lengthy and thoughtful institutional dialogue."

Some of the church's local leaders in Hong Kong, notably Ha and Tong's predecessor, Cardinal Zen, remain politically active moral forces who champion democracy and other causes, both religious and secular. Beyond serving the flock, the diocese runs many grade schools and high schools that are popular with lay parents.

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