06/16/2009, 00.00
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Card. Zen: It is time to put into effect the Popes Letter to China’s Catholics, whatever the cost

by Gianni Criveller
The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong says the Pope’s Letter has marked a new chapter in the life of the Church in China. But the criteria established by the pontiff regarding religious freedom are being watered down and rendered ambiguous. He fears a slide towards an era of comprise, in which the many efforts towards the Church in China are being made in vain. Religious freedom is more important that diplomatic relations. Today Beijing seems less interested in having relations with the Holy See, thanks to a relaxing in relations with Taiwan.
Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – In an impassioned dialogue with AsiaNews card. Joseph Zen says the time has come for the Chinese Church and the Holy See to stop accepting any form of compromise with the Beijing regime and to put into real effect the indications set out by Benedict XVI in his Letter, to safeguard the religious freedom of the Church.  Card. Zen, who as of April last, is bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, is concerned above all by the official Churches transparent submission to the Patriotic Association, which constitutes a “slap in the face” to the Pope and the clear directives that he indicated in his Letter to Chinese Catholics two years ago.

The prelate qualifies the importance of seeking diplomatic relations at all costs between Beijing and the Holy See: they risk being a mere illusion if there is no religious freedom in the nation.  The text that we publish today is part of a long interview that AsiaNews will publish in its monthly magazine (in the August- September edition).

In the excerpt that we publish card. Zen recalls commitment of the Church and the Holy See to reconciling the two communities in China (the official and non-official, or underground church) and he speaks of his future as a teacher in Hong King, but above all in constant contact with Christians in China. 

Eminence, tells us about your commitment to religious freedom for the Church in China.

Since the late ‘70’s early ‘80’s many people have been committed to the Church in China.  And what happened was that the reality of the Church in China slowly began to be reflected outside China.  In other words, the division between the so-called open and official Church and the underground church created, at least at first, two different positions, both in Hong Kong and in the Holy See. Here in Hong Kong – I am speaking about the early years after the opening up – those who helped the Church in China fell into two groups.  There were those who supported the underground community and were almost hostile to the official community, and on the contrary, those who sympathised with the official Church and looked with suspicion upon the underground community.   People who were well connected to the Church in China, who had intimate knowledge of what was taking place, were naturally on the side of the underground church, because it was more faithful to the Church and because it had courageously suffered for the faith.  They viewed the official Church with suspicion, judging it to have given itself up to the government.  But a certain number of people in Hong Kong who were not familiar with China, or young missionaries who had never worked in China, were easily enthused by what there saw during their brief trips to China: open churches, congregations singing etc….. Therefore they were heartened by the freedom that they believed to be real.  As a result they accused the underground Church of stubbornness, unwilling to accept a new reality.

This was also the case within the Holy See: it is widely known that in the past there was friction between the Secretary of State, which tends towards mediation to re-establish diplomatic relations, and Propaganda Fide, which instead aims to ensure the Church a free and real ecclesial life.  After some years of exchange between the Chinese and Universal Churches, above all thanks to those of us who went there to teach, we saw that the official Church is not in any way schismatic or separate.  We realised that it is the government that is keeping it artificially separate from Rome.  Instead the people, in their hearts have preserved the Catholic faith, like the rest of us.  And thus a little at a time the two positions drew closer.  This is true of the Holy See and Hong Kong.   Of course there are those few groups who still like to polarize the situation, and who are only on one side or the other.

We could say that as the Universal Church became more familiar with the concrete reality, it began to accept the so-called official Church.  This resulted in the beginning of a recovery process of the faithful of the official Church, with older bishops presenting themselves to the pope seeking forgiveness and asking to be recognised as bishops.  The Holy See had a very open attitude to this: after necessary investigation and with the consensus of the legitimate underground bishop, it recognised many of the bishops, without ever demanding public announcements of their newly bestowed legitimacy of them.  At the beginning this would have rendered the process of legitimisation very difficult.  The Holy See’s tolerance was, to a certain extent, matched by the tolerance of the government.  In fact at a certain point the latter came to know about these events but did not react with hostile acts or the suppression of those bishops who had obtained Rome’s approval.

A second phase was dealt with in the same way, in which young bishops after their election [according to the “democratic” election procedure imposed by the government – ed.] wanted to receive papal approval ahead of their ordination.  In this case too the Church was very generous and approved many of them, naturally as long as they were acceptable.   And in these cases the government turned a blind eye and did not refuse them for the fact that they had sought Rome’s approval.  Therefore there was a period in which there were concessions and compromises so that everything could finally be officially put to rights.

But that never happened: there was no continuity in reflection, we pushed ahead inertly, without necessary meditation and without ever trying to really improve the situation.

Now we have arrived at a point in which it is no longer right or possible to accept further compromise.  The moment is mature for a new chapter to begin.  The Pope’s Letter to the Catholics of China (2007) must mark this new beginning.  In fact the pope spoke very clearly about the principals that must guide this new phase in the life of the Church in China[1]. Unfortunately over the past two years this move towards greater transparency has not taken place.   In fact it seems to me that we are worryingly sliding down the slope of compromise.  The most disturbing episode, which goes against everything indicated by the pope, is the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the first illegitimate consecrations in 1958.  This really worries me: it appears almost impossible to stop the shape events are taking.  I truly am frightened by the prospect of the possible Assembly of the Catholic in China.  Should that meeting, as I fear it will, succeed in securing the participation of many bishops and priests, it would mean the end.   I repeat: it would mean the complete waste of all the efforts made in the previous years and it would be an insult to the Holy Father. Yes, it would be a slap in the face, because it would mean completely ignoring his Letter.

Who is responsible for the failed implementation of the directives contained in the Holy Father’s Letter?

Certainly in China they tried to do everything to block the pope’s Letter.  But I also believe that the Holy See should have given greater support to the Letter.   The Holy See should have carried on implementing the pope’s directive for transparency for a greater length of time.

Last January you wrote an editorial for the Catholic press in Hong Kong in which you asked China’s official bishops to have the same virtues of Saint Stephan, the first martyr, and not to submit to the will of the State when it is contrary to the faith.  You have asked them to “stand their ground” and resist pressure from the Patriotic Association, to remain faithful to the pope [2].

The point that I am making, as laid out in the article that I wrote in January, may seem somewhat cruel, because to some it may seem that I am calling for martyrdom.  Martyrdom is not something we can choose.  If a situation calls for martyrdom, there will be the Grace of the Lord that will give us strength.  Martyrdom is not the fruit of our own initiative, but if the circumstance so requires, then we must be ready for martyrdom, there is no choice.  If the circumstance requires martyrdom, but the person subtracts himself from it, then it means that he is reneging on the witness of the faith that is his duty to offer.

The phrase “stand your ground” may seem brutal, but we must be clear, we must be firm.  The other option is surrender.  We do not have the right to surrender.  We must stand firm in the faith.

On many occasions the pope has said that we must stand firm in the principals of the faith, even if at first we appear to fail.  Unfortunately some believe that we can renounce a part of our faith in order to be able to evangelise.  But this is absurd, that is why I ask: but what Gospel are you talking about? A reduced Gospel? Of a discounted Gospel?

What are your thoughts on dialogue between the Holy See and China and the possibility of future diplomatic relations?

At times too much importance is given to diplomatic relations; they alone do not rectify everything.  In fact sometimes they can deceive by giving the false impression that religious freedom exists.  The most important thing is religious freedom, which certainly can be facilitated by diplomatic relations.  But it is not necessarily true that when there is one there is the other.  Therefore you cannot have relations as your sole aim without ensuring real freedom.  Currently the establishment of diplomatic ties appears improbable given that relations between Beijing and Taipei are greatly improved.  So to save face in front of Ma Yingjiou (the president of Taiwan) Beijing is in no rush for relations with the Vatican, which would mean a breaking off in relations between the Vatican and Taiwan.  It seems there is tacit consent on both sides, that Beijing will allow Taiwan to maintain its relations with a series of small States, where as up until recently it pursued a campaign of taking these states from under Taiwan’s nose by offering economic concessions. Currently there is an armistice on this point.

Your plans for the future....

I said that I desired to leave the office of the diocese in order to withdraw and concentrate in service to China.  This is why the Holy Father made me cardinal.  I felt that it was impossible to do both well.  I would receive many letters and people, but I could not follow the details of every diocese in China well.  I could not keep up.   I would read the letters and put them aside, I would receive a guest (from China), say what I though was right, but then it would finish there I was not able to go any further.  Now I hope to be able to do more.  This is my main aim: become better informed about the Church in China and each diocese in particular, thereby I will be in a better position to give advice.  Right now I feel I am informed about the Church in China in a general sense, not about each single diocese. Many problems are on a single diocesan level.

Moreover because my previous work was in seminary formation, I would very willingly continue this work which is not incompatible with my work in China.  This is why when Msgr. Tong asked me to help in teaching and seminary life, I was happy to accept.  Equally I would have willingly withdrawn altogether, to leave a clear field, perhaps to go to a Salesian college in Africa where they are in need of teachers.  But I must remember that I am 77 years old, I do not know how much longer I will be able to carry on.  I hope that my health will hold for a few more years still.  And then when I am no longer able to serve, I will retire to a Salesian home.

[1] Ref. dossier AsiaNews.it: Pope's letter to the Church in China.

[2] Ref  CERVELLERA B., “The bishop of Beijing and compromise with the Patriotic Association”, in AsiaNews, February 2009, pp. 27-30. Ref.: AsiaNews.it, 03/01/2009 Cardinal Zen asks Chinese bishops for more courage and 03/02/09 The bishop of Beijing, the Vatican and compromising with the Patriotic Association


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