Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – “I would like to visit each bishop, who is in communion with the Pope, both underground bishops and official bishops” and “embrace each one and pray together the ‘Our Father’,” Mgr Eugene Martin Nugent told AsiaNews on the eve of his departure for Rome. He is leaving after ten years at the helm of the Holy See Study Mission to Hong Kong, an office that handles affairs relating to the Church in China. During that time, he was able to visit China only once, and had met a few Chinese bishops outside the mainland because of government restrictions.
On the eve of Chinese New Year, 13 February, he was named by Pope Benedict XVI, as the new Apostolic Nuncio to Madagascar, Apostolic Delegate to Comoros Islands and Apostolic Delegate to Reunion Island. On 18 March, Card Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone will ordain him archbishop in St Peter’s Basilica on 18 March.
Mgr Nugent, 51, will leave Hong Kong shortly for Rome to prepare for his ordination. He will spend Easter at home in Ireland and in May head to Madagascar, a country of 17 million in which Christians constitute 40 per cent of the population, including about 4 million Catholics.
Mgr Nugent, Liu Yuzheng in his Chinese name, is known to Chinese Catholics as “Daiban”, the Vatican delegate. Like another Matteo Ricci, he is held in high regard for his great memory and his dedication to the Mission. When he arrived in Hong Kong in August 2000, he worked for five months with Mgr Fernardo Filoni, currently substitute at the Secretariat of State. Like his successor, Mgr Filoni also concluded his mission to Hong Kong on the eve of Chinese New Year in 2001.
The Church in mainland China was his sphere of work, roughly 12 million Catholics divided in 138 dioceses (116 active and 22 inactive), served by about 90 bishops, 3,000 priests, 5,000 sisters, 10 major and 22 minor seminaries in the open Church and another 10 seminaries in the underground Church.
Good moments and challenges
During his 10-year mission, Mgr Nugent had good moments as well as challenges. Speaking to AsiaNews he said, “I admire the faith of Catholic bishops, priests, religious and laypeople, and the testimonies of their lives in difficult circumstances.” The unlawful ordination of bishops in China, especially the three cases in 2006,  was “one of the most difficult challenges. It was a painful experience for me personally. I had many sleepless nights at that time,” he said.
Comparing the Church in China in 2000 and now, he noted, “Today, it is more firmly set on the road to ‘normality’ even though it is still at the beginning. Pope Benedict XVI’s Letter for Chinese Catholics in 2007 set clear directions in this sense.” He explained that “normality” refers to applying the universal law of the Church to a situation where, heretofore, special faculties and privileges had been applied. A notable example he cited was the normalisation of Shanghai diocese where the succession of bishops in Shanghai was clarified around 2005.
“I’m convinced that some of the top leaders of the Chinese government understand very well the importance of unity among Catholics, not only in China, but also with the universal Church which was emphasised by Pope Benedict’s letter,” Mgr Nugent said.
The Church in China should fully enjoy the freedom of belief like Catholics in the rest of the world. Catholics living in unity, solidarity and peace with one another will also make a positive contribution to the unity, solidarity and peaceful relations within Chinese society as a whole, he said. “I think this should be the goal of the policy of the Chinese government.”
Having dealt with many controversial issues, he said, “It’s inevitable that there has been criticism, especially when coping with conflict situations in the Church in China”. However, “criticism was fair. All my work was aimed at easing the conflicts and helping the Church to find the best solutions for each case,” he emphasised.
One of the difficulties, he had in his work is the fact that it is “not possible to have direct access to the bishops in China and one has to depend on third-parties to communicate. Our letters in response to local Church issues might sometimes seem to favour one side and upset the other, and in turn one side might react critically while the other would react positively.” Currently, there are about 90 bishops in China in both the underground and open communities.
The significance of Pope Benedict’s Letter
The Papal Letter of 2007 is “like a roadmap” for the Church in China. “Even though the results may not be so clear and evident now, at least everyone understands the direction we have to take,” he said.
“We are not asking the underground community to register or to come into the open, or asking the official community to go underground. However, we do ask for a sincere effort on both sides to move forward on the path of reconciliation,” he added.
He said he hopes “the official communities would be more courageous in making public gestures of communion and building trust with the unregistered communities.” Likewise, “I would hope that the unregistered communities would be able to make further progress in opening up to the official communities.”
“I understand all of this takes time, and it cannot be forced. We, from the Holy See, are not forcing it. But we are willing and happy to facilitate the process,” he said.
Citing a well-known remark Pope John Paul II made at the beginning of his pontificate, “Do not be afraid”, he urges Chinese Catholics to “hold your heads high” without compromising on Church principles. “Let us continue to walk together along the path of communion and reconciliation.”
Church’s hope in China
The hope of the Church in China lies in achieving greater unity within the Catholic community and giving “witness to Christ, to the Gospel and a witness of charity to the great Chinese society”.
In the past decade, he met hundreds of mainland priests, sisters and seminarians, but just a few bishops, since Chinese bishops are severely restricted in travelling. “On critical issues, the bishops have sent their delegates to express their views,” he said.
“In meeting bishops and priests from mainland China, one can see a young, dynamic and vibrant Church. It is true that one also sees a divided and persecuted Church, where faith is tested. Although the Church is controlled, it exudes energy and vitality,” he noted. “Catholics in China are of strong faith and will resist persecution. I will be very happy to see them live out their Catholic faith in freedom, and reunited with the universal Church.”
“I invite the Chinese government to release all the bishops and priests from detention and give them freedom to meet and discuss all Church matters without state control. I am convinced that this is for the benefit of all,” the prelate said.
“My overall impression of the Church in China is positive. We cannot apply our Western criteria or judge people who have endured difficulties such as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).” Many mainland Catholics do not know much about faith formation, and this includes seminarians and the clergy, he noted. The training of Church personnel is considered a priority by the Vatican. Diocesan management systems, transparency and the proper autonomy of sisters’ congregations also need attention.
Mgr Nugent’s visit to Beijing in 2003, representing the Holy See at an international meeting, was his first and only visit to China. He was not granted a visa on two subsequent occasions in 2004 when the Holy See was invited to participate in other international events.
“I would like to visit each bishop, who is in communion with the Pope, both underground bishops and official bishops” and “embrace each one and pray together the ‘Our Father’,” he said.
At present, all the dioceses in China have contacts with the Holy See. Mgr Nugent served as a channel of communication between the Holy See and the local Churches. As such, he tried to improve it so that each side had a better understanding of the other. It is true that communication in some places is easier, but more difficult in others.
Regarding China-Vatican negotiations, “It is strictly reserved to the Secretariat of State and Chinese foreign ministry. There are regular contacts between the two parties,” he said. “I believe that, with goodwill, problems can be resolved. There is no need to be afraid of one another,” he stressed. The Catholic Church has offered a big contribution to Chinese culture in the past, and wants to do the same now and in the future”.
Leaving Hong Kong
He gets ready to leave shortly, he said that he was full of admiration for Hong Kong, its efficiency and order, and will miss the “many wonderful friends” he made, and he will certainly miss Cantonese food.
A good diplomat, Mgr Nugent is known for his strong spirituality. He thanked his “good parents for fostering a happy family and a good environment” where “faith came very natural and normal”. His family members will attend his Episcopal ordination.
Ordained a priest in 1983, he graduated from the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy in the Vatican in 1992. Before coming to Hong Kong, he served in the Vatican missions to Turkey, Jerusalem (Israel and Palestinian Territories).
2 See “China: the government and Holy See ordain a bishop jointly for the first time,” asianews.it, 28 June 2005.