What Cardinal Zen told Pope Francis about the Church in China
Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has said proposals aimed at reconciling the Catholic Church in China and the government-backed Patriotic Catholic Association so concerned him that he traveled to Rome for a personal meeting with Pope Francis.
He said that he found the meeting to be consoling.
“I was rather disorderly in my talking, but I think I succeeded to convey to the Holy Father the worries of his faithful children in China,” the cardinal and archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, recounted in a Jan. 29 letter. The letter was translated to English and posted to his blog.
According to Cardinal Zen, the Pope told him “Yes, I told them [his collaborators in the Holy See] not to create another Mindszenty case!”
Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was the Archbishop of Budapest and suffered persecution and imprisonment under Hungary’s communist government. He was released during the 1956 uprising and took refuge in the U.S. Embassy as Soviet forces restored communist control.
Under government pressure, the Holy See ordered the Hungarian cardinal to leave the country and named a replacement.
Cardinal Zen thought the Pope’s reference to the cardinal was “meaningful and appropriate,” describing the Hungarian churchman as “one of the heroes of our faith.”
The Hong Kong cardinal is among the critics of a reported effort to normalize relations between the Catholic Church and China’s government. The Church in China is complicated by the relationship between the government-supported Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association and the underground Church, which includes priests and bishops who are not recognized by the government.
Every bishop recognized by Beijing must be a member of the patriotic association, and many bishops appointed by the Vatican are not recognized or approved by the Chinese government, and many have faced government persecution. At the same time, not all bishops appointed by the Chinese government have been approved by the Vatican, and thus, the ordinations of some bishops is canonically illicit.
Asia News has reported that a Holy See delegation in October 2017 asked 88-year-old Bishop Peter Zhuang Jianjian of Shantou in southern Guangdong province to retire so that a member of the patriotic association, an illicitly ordained excommunicated bishop could take his place and be recognized by the Vatican. The legitimate bishop refused the request to retire, as well as a second request in December. He visited the Vatican delegation in Beijing in December to voice his views.
Elsewhere, in the Mindong Diocese of China’s eastern Fujian province, the delegation reportedly asked Bishop Joseph Guo Xijin of to accept a position as coadjutor bishop under a government-favored bishop who was illicitly ordained.
The Holy See’s negotiations with the Chinese government could eventually lead to Vatican recognition of seven illicitly ordained bishops aligned with Beijing. The Holy See could be pursuing China’s official recognition of 20 bishop candidates appointed by the Holy See, some of whom have already been secretly ordained, in addition to state recognition of up to 40 bishops in the underground Catholic community.
Cardinal Zen said he spoke out given the crucial nature of the moment and given “the confusion in the media.” For the cardinal, the problem is not the resignation of the legitimate bishops but rather “the request to make (a) place for the illegitimate and even excommunicated ones.”
Many underground bishops have asked for a successor but have not received an answer. Some have had a successor named, and are in possession of a papal bull signed by the Pope, but are ordered not to proceed with the ordination “for fear of offending the government,” the cardinal said.
“I acknowledge myself as a pessimist regarding the present situation of the Church in China, but my pessimism has a foundation in my long direct experience of the Church in China,” he explained. “From 1989 to 1996 I used to spend six months a year teaching in the various seminaries of the official Catholic community. I had direct experience of the slavery and humiliation to which those our brother bishops are subjected.”
Given recent information, he said, there is no reason to change his pessimistic view.
“The communist government is making new harsher regulations limiting religious freedom. They are now strictly enforcing regulations which up to now were practically only on paper,” he added.
Cardinal Zen said that since the Asia News report, “many different versions of the facts and interpretations are creating confusion among the people.” The cardinal said that as far as he knew the Asia News report was accurate.
Recounting his view of events, the cardinal said Bishop Zhuang had asked him for help in October when the bishop had first received the communication from the Holy See. The cardinal sent the bishop’s letter to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of People, with a copy enclosed for Pope Francis.
That same month, the Hong Kong-born Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai, current apostolic nuncio to Greece and former secretary of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, brought the cases of Shantou and Mindong to the Pope’s attention.
“The Holy Father was surprised and promised to look into the matter,” Cardinal Zen said. “Given the words of the Holy Father to Archbishop Savio Hon, the new facts in December were all the more a shocking surprise to me.”
Cardinal Zen said that Bishop Zhuang asked him to tell the Pope about the Vatican delegation’s December request for his retirement. The cardinal made a sudden decision to go to Rome to ensure that the Pope would hear him. Leaving Hong Kong late Jan. 9, he arrived in Rome early Jan. 10, arriving late to the Wednesday General Audience.
The cardinal said he had hoped his appearance would not be much noticed, though his late arrival made it noticeable. He rejected as erroneous some media reports that claimed he had to “wait in a queue, in cold weather.”
After the audience, the cardinal gave Pope Francis an envelope containing a letter from Bishop Zhuang, telling the pontiff his visit was only to deliver the letter. The cardinal told the Pope he hoped he could find time to read it.
Cardinal Zen encouraged prayers for Pope Francis.
“I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China,” the cardinal said. “His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me.”
The Asia News report named Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli as head of the delegation that met with Bishop Zhuang in Beijing. Cardinal Zen said that although he did not know for sure in what official capacity Archbishop Celli was present, he said it is likely that he was the one in Beijing.
The cardinal said that the Popes have avoided using the word “schism” for the government-backed Catholic association “because they knew that many in the official Catholic community were there not by their own free will, but under heavy pressure.”
The proposed unification “would force everybody into that community,” the cardinal contended. He questioned whether there could be any mutual ground with “a totalitarian regime,” comparing this to a hypothetical agreement between St. Joseph and King Herod.
“So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all what they are doing in recent years and months.”
If an agreement between the Vatican and the Holy See is “a bad deal,” Cardinal Zen said, “I would be more than happy to be the obstacle.”
His successor in Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong Hon, has appeared to take a somewhat different approach. In a February 2017 article for the Hong Kong's Sunday Examiner newspaper, he said the illicitly ordained bishops are willing to show their obedience to the Pope. He voiced optimism that the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association could transform into a more voluntary body.