Skip to content Skip to navigation

First Chinese Bishop marked shift in Macao diocese

Wed, 29th May 2019
Domingos Lam led the diocese in Macao for 15 years from 1988 to 2003.

More than four centuries after its establishment, the Macao diocese consecrated its first Chinese Catholic bishop, Domingos Lam Ka Tseung, in 1988. His appointment came just one year after the signing of the Sino-Portuguese Joint Declaration, which established the process and conditions for the future transfer of Macao to China. Lam would go on to lead the diocese for 15 years, including during the 1999 transition from Portuguese to Chinese administration, before his retirement in 2003. He passed away in July 2009.

“He was the man of the situation,” Father Luís Sequeira, a resident of Macao since 1976 and formerly the superior of the Jesuits here, said in an interview. Although Lam never lived or studied in Portugal, he spoke fluent Portuguese as well as Chinese, enabling him to mix with both communities in the city. “He was intelligent, had great social relations, and was accepted in political circles … He accepted deeply the identity of Macao.”

During his period in office, Lam increased the number of prayer centres and parochial halls, strengthening the network of parishes, and supervised the growth of cultural institutions to increase the church’s influence in the city. The Portuguese government recognised his work on four occasions and in 2002, his last full year in office, the Macao government awarded Lam the Honourable Medal of Golden Lotus Flower for his personal achievements and contributions to society.

But there was not a single local ordination for the priesthood during his 15-year tenure, forcing the diocese to rely on foreign priests to fill the void.


Priest, educator, journalist

Born on 9 April 1928 in Hong Kong, Lam moved with his family to Macao when he was four years old. He attended Bosco primary school before seeking higher education at St Joseph’s Seminary. He graduated with a bachelor’s in Philosophy and Theology in 1953 and was ordained later that year.

Lam spent much of the next decade serving in various capacities in Macao. He taught at the seminary and St Joseph’s Secondary School, where he was also the principal. During the same period, he was editor of the Aurora Monthly in Macao. Then in 1959, he became principal of Escola Dom João Paulino and a parish priest at the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church in Taipa. It was during this period that Lam mastered Portuguese.

In 1962, Lam left the city for Singapore where he was a priest at the local St Joseph Church and editor of the English-language Rally Monthly. Four times he was put in charge of the Singapore diocese’s finances. After more than a decade abroad, Lam returned to Macao in 1973.


A colonial mindset

The Diocese of Macao, established on 23 January 1576, was the first Catholic diocese in the Far East. It was initially responsible for evangelisation of a vast area – including China, Japan, Korea, Cambodia, Siam (Thailand), Tonkin and Cochinchina (north and south Vietnam) – with a total population of around 500 million.

Over the next four centuries, the Macao diocese was active in religion, education, charity, and social services. It established the Holy House of Mercy, the St Raphael Hospital (now the Portuguese Consulate) and the St Lazarus Leprosarium, as well as 60 schools and education centres that now serve 40,000 students. Today, the diocese boasts six parishes and three sub-parishes, nearly 20 churches, 30,000 believers, and 350 priests and nuns.

Portuguese bishops led the diocese throughout this long history, despite an increasing number of Chinese adherents and the approaching handover to China. Portugal, prior to its 1974 revolution, was a conservative country that ran its colonies with very limited representation by local people. According to Sequeira, before 1974, an African priest could become a bishop only if he was exceptional. “That was the mentality. It was only after the revolution that Angola and Mozambique had local bishops. The evolution came slowly.”


Groomed to lead

Lam’s ascent to the top position in the diocese began a few years after his return to Macao in 1973. He became Rector of St Joseph’s Seminary, where he served for the next three years.

Meanwhile, another Portuguese priest took over as Bishop of Macao: Arquimínio Rodrigues da Costa, a native of the Azores who had come to Macao in 1938, was consecrated in the cathedral on 25 March 1976. The new bishop looked at his flock – one-third Chinese and two-thirds Portuguese and Macanese – and realised that the time had come for a change.

To ensure this, da Costa began grooming the person he believed best suited to be his successor, and the diocese’s first Chinese bishop: Domingos Lam. In 1976, the Pope appointed Lam as the Vicar General at the Bishop’s Office in Macao, a position he held for the next 11 years. Appointed Coadjutor Bishop in 1987, Lam quickly went on to succeed da Costa, becoming the 22nd Bishop of Macao on 6 October 1988.

According to Father Sequeira, during the transition, the bishop had to be Chinese: “The church needed a Chinese with a sense of two cultures. Lam was sharp with a good sense of administration. He was well acquainted with the Portuguese and Chinese sides. He had good relations with the governor. He was very balanced and respectful.”

In the years leading up to the handover, many Catholics – Portuguese, Macanese, and Chinese – left Macao. Unsure of the church’s future in the city, they went to Portugal, the US, Canada, Australia and other countries, taking their families with them. Their numbers have since been replaced in the churches in part by Filipinos who have come to work in Macao in the casinos, hotels, shops and restaurants, and by new migrants from the mainland.

Lam not only led the diocese through this transitional period, he represented the Catholic community in the political process as the only religious representative invited to contribute to drafting the Basic Law of Macao. He was a voting member of the Macao Basic Law Drafting Committee from 1988 to 1993. Of the 90 members of the Macao Basic Law Consultative Committee, more than 20 were Catholics.

It was not an easy assignment. The Vatican had, and still has, no relations with the Chinese central government, because of disagreements over the appointment of bishops, the treatment of the ‘underground’ church, and other issues. Fortunately, these conflicts did not exist in Macao, making negotiations much simpler.

The central government promised that, after the handover, the Catholic church in Macao would be able to operate as before, including management of its schools, social centres, and other institutions.

According to Sequeira, Bishop Lam meticulously prepared for the handover, which was set for midnight on 20 December 1999. He held a Thanksgiving Mass the day before, and a Mass of blessings on the day of, inviting the new Chief Executive, Edmund Ho, as well as the most prominent Portuguese officials. Ho, himself not a Catholic, entered the Mass to widespread applause. “It was a fine gesture.”

Sequeira said that Ho and Lam shared a sense of balance in understanding Macao, the harmony of the Portuguese and Chinese elements. “There was never tension.” That balanced approach would prove useful after the transition as well.


Legacy of leadership

In his history of the diocese, Bishop Lam summarised his own time in office thusly:

“After my inauguration, I received great support from different congregations and the government. I went in for large-scale construction, renovated and built schools, seminary, churches, the bishop’s office, the Convention Centre in Coloane and premises for social services, for the continuation of evangelisation in Macao.”

In addition to the existing six church districts, Lam built three more, to meet the growth of Macao. His emphasis on infrastructure also included the building of meeting centres and museums inside churches, to make Macao a meeting place for the Asian church and develop it as a destination for religious tourism. Moreover, Lam played the role of a bridge, enabling the church in Macao to have good relations with the Chinese government and serve Catholics in the mainland.

He lent his support to the establishment of the first Chinese-language Catholic newspaper in the city, the Macau Observer. Lam, with his own history writing and editing for publications, likely recognised the value of such a newspaper in a city where Chinese-speakers made up a growing portion of the Catholic community and the overwhelming majority of the secular society.

Sequeira described Lam as “exuberant, extroverted, a little too expansive. He liked talking and meeting people. He was very sensitive to those in need. He gave a lot without talking – families, students and priests.”

Yet Lam’s weakness, according to Sequeira, lay in the “pastoral dimension,” citing his inadequate work with young people, the schools, and families. There have been no new priests ordained in Macao since 1992, which means that the average age of the local priests has been increasing every year.

“There are not enough local priests,” Sequeira said. “The religious orders have come to Macao to help in the parishes. Younger priests are working as missionaries. They must speak Cantonese, even Mandarin. They have come from Europe and Latin America, Timor-Leste, and South Korea. There are Philippine priests to help the Filipino community.”

Lam served as Bishop until 30 June 2003 and as Bishop Emeritus after his retirement.


Moving on                        

Lam’s term as Bishop of Macao ended just two months after his 75th birthday; canon law requires that bishops request retirement when they reach that age. Speaking to UCA News, an independent Catholic news agency covering Asia, Lam explained that the aging of local priests and lack of new priesthood candidates was the biggest problem facing his successor, Bishop José Lai Hung Seng (now Bishop Emeritus).

“The reserve of Macao’s native priests is almost used up and the new bishop cannot solve this problem on his own,” reflected Lam. “Macao’s society and economy offer the Church a stable environment for development. The new bishop will be well appreciated if he can generate priesthood vocations, but the local Church will wither away if he cannot.”

Lam continued to live in Macao after his retirement, serving as an advisor to a number of civil associations in the city.

He fell ill in March 2009 and was diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Domingos Lam Ka Tseung died on 27 July, surrounded by members of his family and many members of the religious community; he was 81 years old. Four days later, on 31 July, a funeral Mass was held at the Cathedral of the Nativity of Our Lady. He was buried at São Miguel Arcanjo cemetery.


Text Mark O’Neill  

Photos Diocese de Macau, Government Information Bureau and O Clarim