Hong Kong (Unsplash/Spencer Chows)

A Catholic university for Hong Kong

The recognition of St. Francis, the first of its kind, by the Government of the autonomous territory of South East China. It is news that is "to be welcomed with cautious optimism", as Father Bernardo Cervellera, PIME missionary, explains.
Maria Acqua Simi

The news is now official: Hong Kong will have its first Catholic university, the Saint Francis University. What until now was simply an institute of higher education, the Caritas Institute of Higher Education, has been officially elevated to the rank of university. It is a step forward for an institution attended by over 2,500 students and now recognised for the disciplines of social sciences, administrative management and communication. To understand the novelty and scope of the event, we spoke with Fr. Bernardo Cervellera, a PIME missionary.

"It is certainly a significant thing, although it should be pointed out that a university was not founded, but the Hong Kong government recognised the Caritas Institute of Higher Education as a university, which offered post-secondary courses in various disciplines. The university is dedicated to St Francis, like the former institute. The recognition is also important because it allows the university to offer recognised degrees and receive government and private funding.

The Institute of Higher Education already existed, the priest explains, since 2011 and grew out of an earlier college, Francis Hsu, founded in 1985. Hsu was the first Chinese bishop of Hong Kong (from 1968 to 1973), after a series of Italian missionary bishops of PIME, who established the diocese and helped it grow. About ten years ago, the Hong Kong Jesuits tried to set up a university in the Fanling area, on the border with the People's Republic of China, but of ‘urban’ and perhaps ‘political’ reasons, the government refused permission."

This is not the first time China has welcomed a Catholic university, but the past has been turbulent. "Without considering the commitment of the Jesuits - from Matteo Ricci onwards - in the spheres of culture and education, two important Catholic universities were born and established in China at the beginning of the 20th century: the Furen in Beijing and the Aurora in Shanghai. They offered courses in science, medicine, philosophy and art, bringing the East and the West into dialogue. With the seizure of power by the Chinese Communist Party, the two universities were absorbed by the state. Many Furen professors – priests, bishops and religious people – fled to Taiwan, where they re-founded a university in Taishan near Taipei. Today in China it is legal to open any kind of school, but not a school with a religious identity,” the missionary says.

"From an official point of view, Hong Kong is a ‘Special Administrative Region,’ which – according to the pacts between China and Great Britain for the return of the territory to the motherland – should retain a ‘high degree of autonomy’ expressed in the formula ‘one country, two systems.’ This suggests that Hong Kong will retain the liberal style, economic and religious freedom it enjoyed before its return to China. But since 2020, after massive pro-democracy demonstrations, sometimes involving violence, Beijing has imposed a national security law followed by other laws to educate people about patriotism, respect for the Chinese flag and the national anthem. Spaces for democracy in the election of parliament (Legco) and district councils have also been reduced. Universities are also increasingly subject to government intervention in the academic field, so much so that several qualified university professors have preferred to emigrate elsewhere. So we can certainly welcome the recognition of the St Francis university, but with cautious optimism."

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The university, Fr. Cervellera concludes, has been dedicated "not to one, but to three St Francises: Francis of Assisi, the saint of poverty and simplicity, who had a great love for nature; Francis Xavier, the great evangeliser of the Far East; Francis de Sales, the pastor of a great Protestant city like Geneva. These are the three directions of the university's mission: human ecology; proclamation; ecumenical dialogue.” And the wish is that it follow in the path marked out by these great saints.