The case for Cardinal Zen to be elected Pope

‘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 Pope’s approval. 

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. 


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