‘The Communists have always one policy that is to control the Church, and since they cannot accept double loyalty: loyalty to the country and loyalty to one’s religion. They want to separate Chinese Catholics from Rome: that is their only goal.” This is Chinese Cardinal Zen’s terse but on-the-ball assessment of the Chinese Communist government’s relationship with Catholicism. There are up to 12 million Catholics in China, but half the Catholic population attend government-run Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association churches. But this structure does not pledge unambiguous allegiance to the Pope.
A cardinal since 2006, Cardinal Zen
has always insisted loudly that the Patriotic Church merely imitates
the Catholic Church with the aim of deluding Catholics into joining it,
when in reality, it is expected to follow the Chinese government and not
the Pope. The irony is that many of the members of the Patriotic
Church, set up in 1957, love the Holy Father and privately promise
faithfulness to Rome. Thus, Cardinal Zen
says, “we really only have one Church”, comprised of Catholics, who
either attend Patriotic Association churches or underground churches,
but who all want to do the Pope’s will.
Pope Benedict defined the Church’s role in China in a public letter to
Chinese Catholics in May 2007. Benedict XVI bemoaned “the grave
limitations” that the Chinese government puts in place to sideline the
true Catholic Church and “suffocate pastoral activity”. In July 2011 and
July 2012, the Holy See excommunicated three Chinese bishops because
they had undergone consecration as bishops without first getting the
On his blog and in the public sphere, Cardinal Zen openly urges the Vatican to excommunicate more bishops who are illicitly ordained. Few cardinals would have fought so vocally and against such opposition for the supremacy of the Holy See, as Cardinal Zen
has done in the last few decades. Concerning even bishops who were
validly ordained, he says they can be “more on the side of the [Chinese]
government than of the Holy See, more servants of the government than
shepherds of the flock”. He also does not mince his words when talking
about senior curial officials at the Vatican. Cardinal Zen
has been quick to say that the Vatican’s Congregation for the
Evangelisation of Peoples has wanted “appeasement” with the Chinese
government. He says its policies do not always help the persecuted
Chinese Catholics and the bishops who have been jailed.
This candid Prince of the Church was born on January 13 1932 in Shanghai
to very pious parents. He entered the Salesians in the Hong Kong
novitiate. He was ordained at the age of 29 on February 11 1961. On the
day that Pope Benedict announced his abdication Cardinal Zen was celebrating 52 years of priesthood.
He holds a licentiate in theology and a doctorate in philosophy, both
earned at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome. He has had a
variety of teaching assignments in China. He is first and foremost a son
of Don Bosco and is very proud that he is a schoolteacher. Even in his
70s he wanted to go to Africa to teach in areas where there was a
shortage of schoolteachers. Throughout his life, no matter how many
pressing duties he had as a bishop, he would meet his former pupils.
Interestingly, he taught in seminaries recognised by the Communist Party
between 1989 and 1996. Then, he was appointed coadjutor Bishop of Hong
Kong in 1996 by Pope John Paul II.
Cardinal Zen bravely
confronts politicians not just in China but also in America. In 2011,
the leader of the Chinese Communist Party received a rapturous welcome
in Washington DC, in spite of the grave human rights abuses in China.
After the visit, Cardinal Zen
went to Capitol Hill and reminded the political class that they didn’t
have any reason to be “so optimistic”. It is his tireless mission to
alert people to a situation in China that needs to change. This has led
to him being hailed as “the conscience of China”.
Cardinal Zen has a great
love of the Extraordinary Form Mass and celebrated a Pontifical High
Mass in May 2006, earning the esteem of many Latin Mass groups.
While he may be 81, he looks not much older than 60. Vigorous and
lively, even in retirement he has a schedule that would tire someone
just to read it. No matter where he travels in the world, he makes a
point of seeking out Chinese Catholics and telling them about the state
of the Church in their native land. When he is asked if this is not a
very exhausting existence, he strenuously rejects the notion, saying
that he is a shepherd “for all Chinese Catholics” and that this means
meeting with as many of them as possible anywhere in the world.
Cardinal Zen is
proficient in English, speaking in pithy sentences and getting to the
heart of the matter in seconds. Secularists moan that he’s brusque and
discourteous, but the faithful feel he gets to the point and has the
guts to say things that others would leave out for the sake of
diplomacy. It is this perseverance in serving Chinese Catholics in
different parts of the globe, and his stamina in fulfilling gruelling
schedules and his defence of persecuted Christians, that lead many to
think that he has what it takes to be pope. If he does it will be
China’s loss, but Rome’s gain.