Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – The Vietnamese Church is “dynamic and vital, not least thanks to recent concessions by the government, which is moving ever closer towards full religious freedom.” This “should serve as an example to the Chinese government, which should distance itself from the work of the Patriotic Association and grant full freedom to its Catholics.”
This is what Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, bishop of Hong Kong, told AsiaNews on his return from Ho Chi Minh City, where together with three other Asian cardinals, he concelebrated mass to mark the 500th anniversary of the birth of St Francis Xavier, patron of missionaries.
The bishops of Hong Kong, Manila and Ranchi – Cardinals Zen, Rosales and Toppo – went to Vietnam at the invitation of the archbishop of Ho Chi Minh City, Cardinal Jean-Baptiste Pham Minh Man. The visit took place between 2 and 4 December.
Cardinal Zen immediately said the visit “was really beautiful. We were treated with the utmost hospitality. I noticed that the government is truly opening up to religious freedom: it has removed all limits on priestly ordinations and recruits to the seminary. This is very important, because it is precisely these limits that created many problems for the local Church. Now there is much more freedom, even in this respect. The Chinese government should take Vietnam as an example.”
Throughout the visit, “we felt the very strong faith of the people. The church hierarchy has a solid foundation on which to work, and as soon as the government gave a bit of freedom, this faith was released. With intelligent leadership like that of Cardinal Pham Minh Manh, the Church grows. Apart from Sunday Mass, we participated in an evening for youth, a magnificent moment. We were really touched by what we saw: the great affection they showed us was moving.”
Another example of openness and respect came from the civil authorities themselves, who “did not participate in mass” but invited cardinals for a private meeting: “We visited the civil authorities of Ho Chi Minh City, and they were very gracious to us.”
All this “should be taken by Beijing as an example. As regards, for example, the ordinations of bishops, the Church and government in Vietnam work with one accord. I do not know the exact way it works, but they explained to me that there is no unique formula: each case is discussed together reasonably. This approach is far superior to the current Chinese situation.”
Similar dialogue does not take place between Beijing and the Holy See because, according to Cardinal Zen, “there is one big difference from Vietnam. In the latter, there has never been a Patriotic Association of Catholics. There was a minor attempt to create one, a while ago, but this failed and the Church remained as one. In China, however, this association exists and it is an instrument of the Religious Affairs Department: it is they that decide, together, China’s religious policy.”
At times, this power “has actually been strengthened thanks to the involuntary help of external agents who, concretely, have practically legitimized the position of the government and given prestige to this Liu Bainian [PA vice-president], who has become semi-omnipotent: the government trusts him, but everything he does is opposite to the interests of the Church.”
The cardinal said: “It is difficult to reverse this at the moment, not least because I think China’s supreme authorities are too taken up by other things, including an ongoing power struggle. They do not have the time and still less, the courage, to come forward to negotiate with the Holy See, because negotiating means making concessions on both sides, and those who are not firm in their position and secure of their power would not dare to make concessions, because this would be dangerous. One could be accused of weakness, for example, and because of this fear, everything is always postponed.”
Persecutions suffered by Catholics in Vietnam and China in the past “were very similar: the strong points of one regime and the other used to be evident. On the one hand, there were the visits of bishops to Rome that Ho Chi Minh City always allowed. On the other, China never placed limits on ordinations to the priesthood, something that regularly happened in Vietnam, not least because the government wanted to increase the number of official priests, to counter those who were not official.”
In China, however, “many bishops and priests, even official ones, have always been faithful to Rome in their hearts: at this time, we hope they will find more courage to tell the government that they want a real normalization of ties between the State and the Church. So far, they have been very gracious and patient, they have tolerated this situation of compromise: now they deserve to have the trust of the government and to be allowed to be free to do what Catholic bishops and priests should do.”