[This piece was originally published in Religion Unplugged.]
Cardinal Joseph Zen, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, does not like China.
More specifically, Zen is an open and direct opponent of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the ruling, totalitarian political body that controls Chinese society and the citizenry’s way of life at every level.
The elderly cardinal from Hong Kong has made it his mission in life to advise against the cooperation that the Catholic Church has shown the CCP in regulating citizens’ religion and appointing bishops within their borders.
Repeatedly, Zen has warned his fellow Catholics and the highest levels of the Vatican that there were no conditions under which the CCP could be trusted.
With rumors swirling that the next bishop of Hong Kong could be an affiliate and sympathizer of the CCP, Monsignor Peter Choi, Zen has made endless pleas to squash any such plans. He called the hypothetical appointment of Choi a “disaster” for the Chinese Catholics still struggling to keep the government out of their churches.
With the Vatican silent, Zen had one recourse — as he said it, “visiting Rome to see the Holy Father Pope Francis.”
On Sept. 28, Cardinal Zen posted a series of photos to his official Twitter account to announce his arrival in Rome from halfway around the world.
In the first picture, Zen stands sheepishly in the center of an empty St. Peter’s Square. He’s elderly and frail, but his face still carries a solemn sense of purpose and fortitude, even behind his disposable medical mask.
Another image shows the Chinese clergyman celebrating the mass in Rome, vested in draping green vestments and raising his hands up in performance of the sacrament. Still another shows him kneeled in a pew in prayer.
The photos were not the well-staged, optimistic, and regal photographs that the Catholic community has come to expect from the official media profiles of the princes of the Church. Zen’s photos are amateurish and evoke a sense of pity for the solitary holy man standing by himself.
However, these photos marked an optimistic climax to a desperate struggle that Zen has carried on for decades — the cardinal just wants the Vatican to listen. And with Zen in Rome, a mere stone’s throw from the papal apartments, it seemed that Pope Francis and the bureaucracy of the Vatican would have no choice but to hear him out.
But at the end of the 120 hours he was allotted to visit Rome by the Hong Kong government, Zen was forced to announce that he received “not even a nod from Santa Marta.”
The pope had been too busy to see him, according to the South China Morning Post.
“What a disaster,” the cardinal lamented, according to reports.
This rejection is only the latest in what has been a largely losing campaign for help on behalf of the “underground” Catholic Church in China.
There are two separate communities of the Catholic Church operating within Chinese borders — the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA) is the officially recognized body approved by the government. The separatists who reject government oversight (Zen included) and continue to worship unregulated are what is typically referred to as the “underground church.”
Cardinal Zen has played a large role in the survival of these underground worship circles through the disbursement of funds donated from deep-pocketed philanthropists.
Zen’s biggest patron has been Jimmy Lai, a Chinese billionaire and fellow Catholic who has provided money to help keep underground churches financially stable. Lai is currently facing trial in China for a series of crimes alleged by the CCP, which keeps him from conducting business.
While the underground church fights to stave off their own extinction, the Vatican has made a series of deals with the CCP in order to bolster and hold some sway over the CPCA’s direction. The collaboration between the Vatican and the CCP has caused Zen much distress.
“This is the end of everything. Hong Kong has become just like any place in China, we have no guarantee of anything,” Zen told Crux in July.
Members of the CPCA are expected to show patriotic pride in their nation, and clergy can face serious penalties for perceived defiance of the state.
Priests and even bishops who have spoken out against the CCP or CPCA have been kidnapped and placed under house arrest. The government has also made efforts to alter the Ten Commandments and to retranslate the Bible in order to better fit them to Chinese values.
As the former bishop of Hong Kong, Zen continues to occupy a place on the front line of the fight for human rights in China — Hong Kong currently occupies special attention for its ongoing civil unrest in the face of government overreach.
The current apostolic administrator of Hong Kong, Cardinal Jong Tong Hon, has expressed tepidly sympathetic views of the ongoing struggle for freedom inside the island city. Hon previously retired but was forced to resume his duties after the previous bishop of Hong Kong died of liver failure.
Hon has remained more diplomatic in his speech, not daring to go as far as Zen in disparaging the CCP.
However, Hon maintains that “the public are fully justified in expecting the local government to take action promptly to address their aspirations for justice, democracy and a more decent quality of life.”
Zen sympathizes with Hon, who he says is placed in a dilemma without a clear way forward.
“I have so much pity for him, because he’s really in an impossible situation,” Zen previously told Crux.
Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican Secretary of State, has made it clear that the Vatican’s biggest concern is the preservation of the Church in China and the normalization of worship with the cooperation of the Chinese government.
“With China, our current interest is to normalize the life of the Church as much as possible, to ensure that the Church can live a normal life, which for the Catholic Church is also to have relations with the Holy See and with the Pope,” Parolin said, according to Catholic News Agency.
Zen, now returned to Hong Kong, has no higher authority on Earth to appeal to in his fight to save his country’s church from infiltration.
“I feel sorry to have disappointed our brothers and sisters behind bars. So, let us use a different way: a sincere prayer, to express our same caring and thought to them,” wrote Wednesday on social media, reflecting on his trip.
“For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent.”