I just love Cardinal Joseph Zen, the zealous Chinese shepherd who does not coddle the Vatican, and who is a strident critic of certain powerful clerics in the Catholic hierarchy because he argues they collude in the persecution of Chinese Catholics. Most keenly for these times, Zen is hotly opposed to the deal that Pope Francis made with the Chinese Communist Party, which has meant that conditions are ever worsening for Chinese Catholics. 

This month Cardinal Zen celebrates the 60th anniversary of his ordination to the priesthood. The photo above was taken on the day he offered his first Mass - when he had the ebony hair of youth and the smooth skin of one who was not yet battle hardened. In the past 6 decades, Cardinal Zen has never fled from a fight on behalf of his fellow Chinese, and wow has he been in some scraps with the Vatican during the Francis pontificate. 

Zen has spent the last 60 years as a Salesian priest and he has modeled himself on St John Bosco who founded the Salesians.  Zen is the heir of John Bosco, and it is worth looking at a vision that John Bosco had of China where he was shown that the Salesians would flourish there.

In 1876, John Bosco had his dream of China. T'was a time when John Bosco had uneven success in Italy. He was attracting many priests to his new order and with each new priest he was able to educate more disadvantaged boys, but the order was a victim of snobbery, and the Salesians were often looked down upon, they were not respectable in the eyes of many more middle-class people and other priests started whisper campaigns against Bosco, which if they had succeeded in falsely convincing the bishops that scandals were afoot in the Salesians would have meant a definite end to Bosco's work among disaffected youth. It looked unlikely that they would prosper in Italy, never mind the rest of the world. Yet, in those uncertain days, John Bosco had a great dream of China. 

T'was in 1876. John Bosco was shown a vast population, and he saw women with tiny feet, so much so they found it hard to walk. Then he saw a great multitude of Salesian priests springing up all over the land and they were leading groups of young boys and girls. Truly, John Bosco saw the enormous success that the Salesians would have in China; he saw the people who would form Cardinal Zen. Bosco also said he saw strong Salesian leaders who he did not recognize, and he was told this concerned our times now, the 21st century. I believe John Bosco saw Zen, the plucky prince of the Church as the key stalwart leader, and that this dream given to Bosco 145 years ago was essentially a prophecy of Zen's role today. John Bosco's own account of this dream is included in, 40 Dreams of St John Bosco

I am eagerly awaiting Cardinal Zen's spiritual autobiography, God Has Never Abandoned Me, and I want to see if Zen comments on John Bosco's dream of China. Zen is too modest to say, yes, that's me, I'm one of the Salesian leaders that Bosco saw! But any journalist / Catholic writer worth their salt ought ask Zen if he has ever thought that he was among the leaders that Bosco saw in his dream. I am very certain that the good Lord would not have omitted so mighty a leader as Zen - surely the greatest Salesian in Chinese history - from the dream He gave John Bosco. 

* * *

Before the Conclave of 2013, I was asked by Luke Coppen to write a piece for The Catholic Herald on why Cardinal Zen was my choice for Pope. Below you will find the piece I wrote. At the time of writing, Pope Benedict had been Pope for six years, and I wrote an account of the Chinese situation as it was under Benedict. It is now, however, horribly dated. At the time, the Patriotic Church - the sham-Church and imitator of the true Catholic Church - were at odds with the Vatican because this phony church refused to take orders from the Catholic Church in Rome, yet they deliberately fooled ordinary folk into believing that they were following Rome, when in fact they were enacting Communist government dictates upon the people. 

At the time, a thorn in Benedict's side was that bishops were being consecrated without the Vatican's approval, which sometimes led to these same bishops being excommunicated. Now, however, under Francis, this same sorry situation of bishops being appointed who have not been vetted by the Vatican and judged to be properly fit to lead the faithful has been normalized by the deal that the Vatican did with China. The Vatican has signed away the role of vetting and appointing bishops to President Xi, and Xi picks bishops who will best serve the Communist Party's interests, which is to snuff out Catholicity as much as possible. The Vatican has cheerfully made itself redundant in the vetting of bishops which is now the prerogative of President Xi. This would never have happened under Benedict.

Well, for posterity's sake, here is the piece I wrote 8 years ago in 2013: 

"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 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 allegiance to the Pope. 

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 him 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 grueling schedules and his defense 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. 


  1. I just think is so beautiful to see the Church that God has created, where all the gentiles have come together to worship him. And that picture from Cardinal Zen is wonderful. I'll save it among my favorites.


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