Vatican City, Nov 13, 2016 / 05:17 am (CNA/EWTN News).- Pope Francis has appointed Bishop Michael Yeung Ming-cheung Coadjutor Bishop of the diocese of Hong Kong, the Vatican announced Sunday. Bishop Yeung, 69, has been auxiliary bishop of Hong Kong since Aug. 30, 2014. At the same time, he was also named Titular Bishop of Mons in Numidia by Pope Francis.

He succeeds Cardinal John Tong Hon, 77, who has passed the minimum retirement age of 75. Born in Shanghai on Dec. 1, 1946, Bishop Yeung was ordained a priest of the diocese of Hong Kong on June 10, 1978. He held a variety of pastoral and administrative roles. From 1980-1982 he received a master’s in social communications at Syracuse University in the U.S. Returning to China, he served as director of the office of Social Communications for the diocese of Hong Kong from 1982-1986. He later returned to the U.S. to study at Harvard University, where he received a master’s degree in philosophy of education. He then held the position of director of the Office of Education in the diocese of Hong Kong from 1990-2013. He was appointed vicar general of the diocese in 2009 and a member of the Pontifical Council Cor Unum.

Bishop Yeung’s appointment comes after the Vatican issued a statement Nov. 7 declaring that unverified reports of bishop ordinations taking place within the so-called “underground Church” in China had neither the authorization of the Holy See, nor had they been officially communicated.

“The Holy See has not authorized any ordination, nor has it been officially informed of such events. Should such episcopal ordinations have occurred, they would constitute a grave violation of canonical norms,” the communique read. Signed by Director of the Holy See Press Office, Greg Burke, the statement referred to recent unsubstantiated reports that, without authorization from the Pope, the ordination of some bishops took place recently in the so-called “underground Church” in Continental China.   

As the statement read: “In recent weeks, there has been a series of reports regarding some episcopal ordinations conferred without Papal Mandate of priests of the unofficial community of the Catholic Church in Continental China.” “The Holy See hopes that such reports are baseless,” it continued. “If not, it will have to await reliable information and sure documentation before adequately evaluating the cases.” “However, it is reiterated that it is not licit to proceed with any episcopal ordination without the necessary Papal Mandate, even by appealing to particular personal beliefs.”

The announcement was made amid recent reports of a possible agreement between the Holy See and China concerning the appointment of Chinese bishops. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, told nuncios gathered in Rome Sept. 16-18 that the talks with China deal with the appointment of bishops, and do not deal with any possibility of establishing diplomatic ties.

The agreement, if it takes place, will likely be based on Cardinal Parolin’s model implemented in Vietnam back in 1996: the Holy See proposes a set of three bishops to the Hanoi government, and Hanoi makes its choice. Problems with this model do exist, however, including that the Vietnam administration often delays its approval, leaving dioceses vacant for years. Then, when they make the choice, they usually prefer a pro-government candidate.

Ever since the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Holy See has had a reduced diplomatic presence in Beijing, with the nunciature being moved to Taiwan in 1951.  

China-Vatican relations have been cool, with some apparent thaws. Benedict XVI wrote a letter to Catholics in China in 2007, after which followed a series of bishops’ appointments approved both by the Chinese government and the Holy See.  

The Church in China is in a difficult situation. The government of the Chinese People’s Republic never recognized the Holy See’s authority to appoint bishops. Instead, it established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, a sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy officially recognized by the Chinese authorities.  

For this reason, Chinese bishops recognized by the Holy See entered a clandestine state, thus giving life to the so called “underground Church” that is not recognized by the government. Cardinal Joseph Zen Zekiung, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, disapproved of the potential agreement between the Chinese government and the Holy See regarding bishop appointments.

In a long open letter, he lamented that nothing would change in terms of religious freedom in China. He expressed his concern that this path would be a return of the “Ostpolitik,” the Cold War policy put into action under Pope Paul VI by the Holy See. The Vatican made reciprocal concessions with countries on the other side of Europe’s Iron Curtain in order to guarantee a peaceful life to Christians in the countries under Soviet communist domination.  

Cardinal John Tong Hon, Cardinal Zen’s successor as Archbishop of Hong Kong, responded to Cardinal Zen. He specified that final choice on a bishop’s appointment was always the Pope’s. He highlighted the fact that papal nuncios themselves can seek opinions from external lay people when they are examining candidates for the episcopate.