Exclusive Interview with Cardinal Joseph Zen

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Archbishop Zen speaks at a press conference in 2018. Photo: CNS, Joseph Yip, Reuters

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun SDB of Hong Kong has urged Australian Catholics to pray for fellow Catholics in China enduring a “terrible situation” as a controversial Vatican-China agreement is tipped to be renewed for a further two years.

In an exclusive interview by email the 88-year-old former archbishop of Hong Kong who has been an outspoken critic of the agreement said that Catholics in China cannot speak for themselves without “great danger” and need Catholics in other countries, including Pope Francis, to speak on their behalf.

It is a terrible situation

Because the details of the agreement on the appointment of bishops have been kept secret it can only be judged on its effects so far, which are “very bad”, Cardinal Zen said.

The agreement allowed “opportunist” bishops to infiltrate the Catholic Church in China, risking making it largely an instrument of state policy, he said.

The agreement also “did not stop the [Chinese Communist Party] from persecuting the Church, for example they forbid minors under 18 from entering churches and participating in any religious activity,” he explained.

People are seen at the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing July 14. A Chinese communist party official indicated July 19 that Beijing intends to retain tight grip on the Catholic Church. (CNS photo/Damir Sagolj, Reuters) See CHINA-COMMUNIST-VATICAN-CONTROL July 21, 2017.

Meanwhile, the unofficial or underground Catholic community has lost everything that was tolerated by the CCP previously, he said, adding that because the Vatican had “surrendered” to the nation’s leaders with the agreement, they used it to demand underground Catholics join the state-approved Catholic communities.

“They can have no longer have their churches, they can no more perform sacraments in private homes and the Vatican gives no more bishops to them,” Cardinal Zen said.
“They are more officials of the government than shepherds of God’s flock,” he said.
“It is a terrible situation.”

Pope Francis will reportedly renew the provisional agreement between the Vatican and the CCP this month.

Chinese Catholics hold candles during the Easter Vigil Mass at a church in Xiaohan village of Tianjin municipality, China, April 11. (CNS photo/Vincent Du, Reuters) (April 12, 2009)

China’s roughly 20 million Catholics have for decades been split between a government-run Patriotic Association, whose clergy are chosen by the Communist Party, and an unofficial underground church loyal to the Vatican.

Cardinal Zen estimated that there are approximately 10 million Catholics in the underground Church and approximately the same number in the Patriotic Church. After years of negotiations and setbacks, the Vatican sealed a provisional agreement with Beijing in September 2018; the agreement is due to expire on 22 October.

We must respect God’s time

After the agreement was signed, Pope Francis recognised eight Chinese bishops who had been appointed by Beijing without his approval. Two new bishops have been appointed since then.

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin said last month that the Church’s “current interest with China is to normalise the life of the church as much as possible” but admitted that the results so far had “not been particularly striking”.

Other experts apart from Cardinal Zen have expressed concerns over the agreement and hopes that the Vatican will be tougher on China, which faces growing accusations of human rights abuses, particularly against religious minorities including Christians.

Archbishop Zen Photo: CNS,Reuters

According to the cardinal, China’s Protestant communities are also being persecuted and needed prayers. He said he agreed with former Australian National University academic Audrey Donnithorne that the Vatican had been too quick to reach this particular agreement with Beijing.

“Haste is a bad adviser,” the Cardinal said.  “If you want quick success, you easily forget the principles, you commit mistakes and even sin against your conscience. We must respect God’s time.  Obviously we still must do everything we can, in justice and in truth.”

The future is in God’s hands

It is now being said that within a few years despite challenges and overt persecution China will become the most populous Christian nation in the world in terms of sheer numbers.
But the Cardinal warned that “we cannot rely on numbers” for hope.

“The future is in God’s hands,” he told The Catholic Weekly. “Miracles are always possible from God. Humanly speaking, we cannot rely on numbers. If, in the government-controlled community, the bishops are not real shepherds, the faithful will realise that they are being cheated and will leave, or … even worse. Let’s pray and offer sacrifices!”

A priest celebrates Mass in a makeshift chapel in a village near Beijing in 2012. As the Vatican-China agreement on the naming of bishops approaches two years, Beijing is still lagging behind in giving concessions compared with those made ahead of the deal by the Vatican. Photo: CNS, Reuters

The Cardinal urged Catholics in Australia to look for good information on the situation of churches in China.  “Your conscience and your prayer may help you to discern,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said, many of the Church’s faithful may be forced to go further underground “into the catacombs” to escape persecution or undue state influence, however he was confident that the faith will survive.

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