04/11/2005, 00.00
China – Vatican – Hong Kong
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Sino-Vatican relations after pope's death

by Joseph Zen

Hong Kong (AsiaNews/SE) – In a signed editorial published on the Sunday Examiner yesterday, Msgr Joseph Zen  pointed out which are the obstacles to the Sino Vatican relations. The bishop of Hong Kong stresses that the problems do not come from the Vatican – Taiwan relationship, but from China  pretence to control the nominations of the bishops. He also accuses the Patriotic Association to be a conservative force in China. And accuses the vice-president Liu Bainian of having failed to help the government understand the spiritual and pastoral nature of the Pope mission. Msgr Zen underlines that China cannot help hoping for a change in the Vatican policy towards  Beijing, unless China gives precises guarantees on freedom of religion and understand that appointment of bishops is not "an interference in China's affairs", but a pastoral duty of the Holy Father.

All the Chinese faithful, who have had a chance to meet John Paul II, kiss his hand or talk with him, could confirm that he always to assured us he prayed for China everyday.

When Bishop Tong and I were received by His Holiness shortly after our episcopal ordinations, the Holy Father kept repeating, almost like a little child pleading with its mother, "I want to go to China, I want to go to China!" In mourning the Holy Father, I said his one regret must have been that he never had the chance to visit China, or even Hong Kong. This was his deepest longing and greatest dream.

Recently, at a press conference, I explained in detail how the then chief secretary, Anson Chan, did her best to help obtain permission for the pope to come to Hong Kong for the conclusion of the Asian Bishops' Synod. The answer from Beijing was that since there were no diplomatic relations between the Vatican and China, it was inappropriate for the pope to come.

When asked if, with John Paul II's going and a new pope coming, there would be a new setting to the establishing of Sino-Vatican diplomatic relations, my answer was that "objectively" there should not be any difference. The Vatican's policy to work for a speedy establishment of Sino-Vatican diplomatic relations is well established and will not alter with the change of the person of the pope. Unfortunately, there seems to be little interest on the part of Beijing authorities in recent years.

The desire for dialogue, which may lead to the establishment of diplomatic relations, is so strong that it prompted Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Sodano, to make the following statement on 11 February 1999. "Our nunciature in Taipei is the nunciature in China and if Beijing agrees, we can move it to Beijing. I don't say tomorrow, or even tonight."

The statement offended the sensitivities of the Taiwanese people, as I dared to point out publicly at the time. It may also have misled Beijing into believing that the Vatican was ready for a complete surrender. Actually, what it did raise was a wave of expectation. However, with the realisation that the Vatican was not ready to surrender the stalemate continued.

During the Holy Father's recent illness and then upon his death, kind words came from Beijing, which raised some new optimism about the re-establishment of Sino-Vatican diplomatic relations. Along with the good wishes and later condolences, the two conditions for eventual rapprochement were reiterated; firstly to sever ties with Taiwan and secondly to stop interfering in Chinese affairs, even in religious matters. Before any dialogue or eventual consensus, we could not expect any Chinese spokesperson to say anything else. But people must know that the problem is not about Taiwan, it is about interference. 

Severing ties with Taiwan would be problematic, because, never in history has the Holy See taken the unilateral action to sever diplomatic relations with any state. It should be remembered that it was the authorities in Beijing who expelled the nuncio from China at a time when Taiwan was recognised as being the legitimate government of China by the United Nations. Nevertheless, Cardinal Sodano's words made it clear that the Holy See is ready to take that step. This is public information. I am amazed that the media is treating it as if I had revealed any secret.

The Holy See's rationale in making such a decision, albeit reluctantly, has also been accepted by the bishops in Taiwan. The Holy See is facing a dilemma; either keep the status quo and abandon the faithful in the mainland to their fate, or try to help them to achieve a state of normal religious practice and come to terms with the Beijing government. Even within the Taiwanese government there are people who sympathise with the Holy See, and the Holy See is confident that, in any situation that may develop, the Church in Taiwan would continue to enjoy religious freedom.

When we, the three vicars-general of the Hong Kong diocese, officially visited the United Front Branch of the Communist Party in Beijing in 1997, the then vice-director of the branch talked about the first condition. But as soon as I said that this point doesn't make problem the switched immediately the conversation to the second condition. Of course, if Beijing demands that the Holy See sever its ties with Taiwan before they will even start talking, in other words, before they will even give any assurance of a possible normalisation of the religious situation, that would be unfair.

Calling the appointment of bishops by the pope an "interference in internal affairs of China" is obviously a misunderstanding. The appointment of bishops is the pastoral duty of the Holy Father. It is, by nature, a purely religious matter. All big nations accept this. Nobody regards this as a breach of either national dignity or sovereignty. I would like to ask if multinational companies would accept having the managers of a branch office in China appointed by the Chinese government? Some governments, which in the past wanted to have a say in the appointment of bishops, have now confidently renounced such a privilege. However, I understand that in fact, before full mutual trust can be built, the Holy See may accept some participation of the Beijing government. And as Beijing knows that, there should be no problem. It is not insoluble. There is a Vietnamese way of doing these things and a Cuban way, surely some way can be found and agreed upon.

On the evening of April 3, the vice-chairperson of the Chinese Patriotic Association, Liu Bainian, said something on television with which I strongly disagree. He said that obviously Bishop Zen was ignorant of how the Chinese side is working for the establishment of Sino-Vatican relations. I would really like to have an opportunity to check the facts with Liu. He then said that Bishop Zen would do better to persuade the conservative forces in the Vatican not to create obstacles to negotiations. Is Liu really so ignorant of the situation in the Vatican? Talking of conservative forces in this context is tantamount to living in an era long gone. But more seriously, insinuating that John Paul II yielded to the conservative forces, or became a conservative force himself, would be a grievous unfairness and expression of disrespect for the great, wise leader of the Church.

I am afraid it is the so-called faithful of the Patriotic Association, like Liu, who are actually the conservative forces that, until now, have failed to help the central government understand the pastoral nature of the office of the pope. For obvious reasons, if real normalisation of the religious situation became a reality, they, and especially Liu, would no longer be able to go over the heads of the bishops and sustain control of the Church in their own hands.

Liu and myself are not young anymore and not far from the day we have to give an account of our life to God. Let us put aside any short-sighted interest and do something really beneficial for the Church and to our country.

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See also
Beijing confirms the existence of "contacts" between China and the Holy See
Card. Tong: Communion of the Church in China with the Universal Church
04/08/2016 07:00
Card. Tong’s article on China-Holy See dialogue, arouses joy and dismay
09/02/2017 12:34
Card. Tong: The future of Sino-Vatican dialogue from an ecclesiological point of view
09/02/2017 08:30
Cardinal Zen to leave helm of Hong Kong diocese after Easter


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