While many places around the world tend to slow down during the hot summer months, in Asia things seem to be heating up in a different sense.
Over the weekend Cardinal Tong Hon, apostolic administrator of Hong Kong and chairman of the Hong Kong Christian Council, issued a letter urging Catholics to pray for “the wellbeing” of the city as unrest continues.
Protests in Hong Kong erupted in June, when Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, current Chief Executive of the city, issued a bill granting mainland China extradition rights over any Hong Kong resident, including tourists and foreign nationals.
Facing fierce backlash over the move, Lam - a practicing Catholic - suspended the bill, but she did not meet protesters’ demands to withdraw it and resign from her post, prompting millions of locals to take to the streets.
At times clashes between police and protesters have turned violent, and several people have been arrested as tensions continue to mount.
Protesters stormed Hong Kong’s airport on Monday and Tuesday, grounding flights and leaving many passengers stranded. As of Wednesday, the flight schedule returned more or less to normal, however, that day further protests erupted between police and protesters in Sham Shui Po, a residential area of Hong Kong.
According to Italian agency SIR, the official news site for the Italian bishops’ conference, Hon, who has previously urged Lam to withdraw the extradition bill, sent his letter to parishes and men’s and women’s religious communities saying the situation “has reached a critical level.”
He invited Catholics to pray “intensely” every Friday, encouraging them to offer fasting, Masses, Eucharistic adoration and the praying of the Via Crucis for the situation not to escalate. He also urged faithful to perform acts of charity for the poor and needy.
Hon also invited Catholics in Hong Kong to a special Mass that will take place Friday, Aug. 23 at the parish of Saint Francis of Assisi in Shek Kip Mei, Kowloon, which will be attended by all priests in the city.
Duterte declares Marian feast a national holiday in the Philippines
In the Philippines, a different tone was struck this week when President Rodrigo Duterte on Wednesday signed a bill declaring the Sept. 8 Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary a “national special working holiday.”
It marks the second time Duterte has declared a Marian feast as a national holiday in the Philippines, following his 2017 declaration of the Dec. 8 feast of the Immaculate Conception as a special working holiday.
There has always been a special link between the Philippines and the Virgin Mary, and in September 1942 Pope Pius XII declared Mary as the principal patroness of the nation.
According to the Manila Times, at the time Duterte described Mary as being “selfless” in accepting the invitation to be the mother of Jesus “so that the plan of salvation be realized.”
Duterte, who claims to have been molested by a priest in the 1950s and who has often had harsh words for the country’s bishops, called Mary “the epitome of faith and source of inspiration” for many Christians, especially during difficult times.
Since he took office in 2016, Duterte has been critical of church leaders in the Philippines, primarily over their condemnation of his crackdown on the drug trade, which has left thousands of people dead in extrajudicial killings, as well as his efforts to reintroduce the death penalty.
Catholics in the country have often been the targets of inflammatory comments made by Duterte, who in the past has said the country’s bishops are “fools” who are “good for nothing.” At one point he called abuser priests “sons of bitches,” and threatened to kill them.
One of the oldest Marian feast days on the Catholic liturgical calendar, the Nativity of Mary commemorates Mary’s birth. Though scripture itself does not speak of Mary’s birth, the oldest account is believed to come from a 2nd century apocryphal text. It has been celebrated by Catholics as early as the 6th century.
According to the Manila Times, the bill passed the senate May 20 and was signed by Duterte Aug. 8, but it was not released until Wednesday.
In a possible sign of the tensions between Duterte and Catholic bishops in the Philippines, the bill has been widely covered in mainstream media in the country, but there has been surprisingly little reaction from the bishops.
Few articles announcing the news have been published on Catholic news sites in the country, and there has been no statement from the bishops’ conference or its president, Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao.
However, according to UCAnews, Father Melvin Castro, chancellor for the Diocese of Tarlac, praised Duterte’s decision, saying the new Marian holiday is a “cause for joy.”
The declaration of the feast as a national holiday “recognizes the importance of religious and spiritual celebrations,” he said, voicing hope that the Sept. 8 celebration will inspire people “to emulate and imitate the virtues of Our Lady.”