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HONG KONG—Wearing a loose gray button-up shirt with a priest’s collar, 84-year-old former Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun walked down the walkway outside the Salesian Mission House in Hong Kong, where he studied as a student in 1948. With white hair, wire-framed glasses, and slightly stooped shoulders, Zen has a gentle smile reminiscent of a grandfather’s. Yet when the topic turns to the Vatican’s warming relations with Beijing, Zen passionately raises his voice, at times banging his hand on the table, at times shaking his head while exhaling “Ai-ya-ya-ya.”
Since becoming the bishop of the Hong Kong Diocese in 2002, Zen has gained prominence as an advocate for democracy, human rights, and religious liberties: At the second anniversary of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests in September, he led Mass on the sidewalk outside the government headquarters, and afterward supporters lined up to take selfies with the former cardinal. He’s also the loudest critic of the Vatican’s recent move toward re-establishing relations with China, which ended in 1951 when the Communist Party kicked Vatican representatives out of the country.
While many in Rome hope that a China-Vatican agreement could ensure greater freedoms for Catholics in China, Zen distrusts the Beijing government, and he fears the Vatican would lose the trust of underground Catholics who have faced heavy persecution for remaining loyal to the pope.
NESTORIAN MISSIONARIES first brought Christianity to China during the Tang dynasty in the eighth century, and over the years Franciscan, Jesuit, Russian Orthodox, and Protestant missionaries continued to evangelize China. Throughout the dynasties, emperors would periodically ban Christianity in an aim to kick out foreign influences that contradicted Confucian traditions, yet others would return. One of the most well-known missionaries was Matteo Ricci, an Italian Jesuit priest who came to China in the late 16th century and compiled a Portuguese-Chinese dictionary, the first in any European language. He impressed the Chinese court with his science and cartography skills, and many officials converted to Roman Catholicism.
In 1943, the newly formed Republic of China established diplomatic relations with the Vatican, and by the time the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took over in 1949, China had about 4 million Roman Catholics, and 2,557 Chinese priests existed.
Once in power, the CCP kicked out missionaries as well as the Apostolic Nunciature, which is equivalent to the Vatican’s embassy. The office then moved to Taiwan, where the Nationalists fled, and the Holy See has maintained relations with Taiwan ever since. Back in China, authorities forced Catholics to join the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association (CPCA), which renounces the authority of the pope, chooses its own bishops, and supports the one-child policy that requires artificial contraception and abortion.
The goal is to ‘protect the rightful religious freedom and rights of the Catholic Church in China that are written in the Chinese Constitution.’ —Cardinal Tong
Those who refused to join faced persecution, imprisonment, and even death. Like Chinese Protestants, two groups emerged within the Catholic church—the official state-sanctioned church and the underground church that remained faithful to the pope. Today there are 12 million Catholics in China, about half in the underground church.
Because of China’s great aversion to the foreign influence of the pope, the underground Catholic church faced greater persecution than even the Protestant house church and required greater secrecy. A leading Protestant pastor told me he didn’t know where these underground Catholic churches met and has never met a member of that church.
Their seclusion from the rest of the world meant that for a time they couldn’t contact the Vatican, and previous popes granted underground bishops the ability to confirm new bishops without Vatican approval. Authorities often arrested these underground bishops, and the U.S.-based Cardinal Kung Foundation reported that some died suspiciously: In November 2015, the body of 41-year-old Father Pedro Yu Heping was found floating in a river in Shanxi province. The government claimed the underground priest committed suicide, yet friends and family were skeptical of that explanation. Officials refused to release surveillance camera footage of Yu’s last moments and would not allow the family to take home his body until they agreed that he died by suicide.
THE CATHOLIC DIOCESES OF HONG KONG AND MACAU are not under the CPCA because of the region’s unique autonomous status, allowing Zen to speak out against the Chinese government. Zen grew up in a Catholic home in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong to attend the Salesian school in 1948, a year before the CCP takeover in China. Once in Hong Kong, it was difficult for Zen to communicate with the rest of his family, who faced severe persecution under Mao’s rule.
Zen went on to get his Ph.D. in Italy and returned to Hong Kong to teach philosophy and theology. As China began opening up in the 1980s, Chinese authorities allowed Zen to return to Shanghai in 1989 to teach at official seminaries for six months of the year. Even though he first arrived in the mainland months after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Zen found the seminaries very welcoming and looks back at his seven years teaching all over China as “a wonderful time.”
The seminaries, which had been closed for many years during the darkest days of Communist rule, now teemed with students, and Zen was free to teach what he wanted. “My experience is that if you are faithful to your principles, even the enemy has some respect for you. But once you submit to their demands, you are a slave.”
Yet at the same time, Zen saw firsthand how little control the church had over its own seminaries. Government officials made up half of the seminary’s board of governors, giving them the power to make major decisions. Officials came in twice a week to teach the seminarians about Marxism. Each batch of students contained several spies, although Zen noted that most people knew who they were, limiting their effectiveness.
While teaching at major seminaries around China, Zen met bishops occupying some of the highest levels of power in the CPCA, and soon realized how powerless they were. Although the Vatican has now recognized all but eight of the bishops in the CPCA, China’s Bishops’ Conference was less a meeting of bishops than a time when religious bureau officials gave their instructions. Even the head of the CPCA and the Bishops’ Conference—the highest authority in the official church—could not freely make a call to the Vatican: “In China, everything is fake,” Zen said.
TALKS BETWEEN THE VATICAN AND CHINA have failed in the past because the two sides come with different objectives, said Peter Chiang, a professor at Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei and an editor at Vatican Radio. The Vatican wants to bring greater religious freedom to the millions of Catholics in China and bring the underground church out of hiding. Beijing, on the other hand, is merely looking for the legitimacy provided by a diplomatic relationship with the Vatican. It also wants the Vatican to cut ties with Taiwan, which China claims to be part of its country. Vatican City is one of only 22 countries that officially recognize Taiwan, and the only country located in Europe.
Yet in recent months, China and the Vatican have been working on an agreement that would tackle the biggest obstacle standing in the way of diplomatic relations—the status of the eight illegitimate Chinese bishops and the process of appointing future bishops. Hong Kong Cardinal John Tong Hon wrote in a report that he hoped that through dialogue, China could see that the Catholic church “is not an enemy of the country or an outside invader” but a positive influence on Chinese society. The goal is to “protect the rightful religious freedom and rights of the Catholic Church in China that are written in the Chinese Constitution,” Tong wrote.
As for bishop appointments, Tong said the Holy See is willing to take a different approach with China to “reach a mutually acceptable consensus.” According to an initial agreement, a Bishops’ Conference that included both open and underground bishops would be able to recommend new bishops. The Vatican would then approve or reject these candidates but must provide reasons for its veto.
Church officials told the Reuters news service that the Vatican and China expect to finalize the deal soon. The Vatican has decided to recognize at least four of the illegitimate bishops, and China will ordain at least two new Chinese bishops with the Vatican’s approval by the year’s end. The other four illegitimate bishops are more difficult cases as two have children or girlfriends and two lead dioceses that already have bishops approved by the Vatican, Reuters reported.
Yet Zen, who has not yet seen the contents of the agreement, is wary of such an arrangement. He sees it as handing the authority of choosing bishops over to an atheist government, as government officials ultimately run the Bishops’ Conference. “How can they know who is fit for being a bishop?” Zen asks. Rather, Zen believes the process should start with the church while possibly giving the state veto power.
Zen believes the church is in “a dangerous situation” as the Holy See desperately wants to strike a deal, yet the Chinese government is only interested in wresting power from Rome. “I tell people what I have seen in China, but these people in Rome seem to be deaf.” He’s shocked they are still so optimistic about China upholding its end of the bargain, as “nothing has been changed even with the open policy. Religious policy has always been the same; today may be even harsher than before.”
The case of Shanghai Bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin represents the hardships of those who reject government control. Both the CPCA and the Vatican approved Ma in 2012, yet at his ordination Mass, Ma announced his resignation from the CPCA. The Chinese government then placed him under house arrest at Sheshan Seminary, where authorities forced him to take Communist indoctrination classes. In June, Ma allegedly wrote a blog post repenting of his action and praising the CPCA, yet many believe he made the statements under duress.
Another big issue is what would become of the underground church. Tong noted that in the future, the Bishops’ Conference would include both underground and official bishops in order to better represent all Catholics. Yet Zen pointed out that the whole reason they suffered persecution and remained underground was to skirt government control. Underground priests expressed their worries about the warming relations. Father Dong Baolu of Hebei province told The Telegraph that “it’s possible that Rome may betray us. If this happens, I will resign. I won’t join a Church which is controlled by the Communist Party.”
The talk of working toward re-establishing relations with China also worries Taiwan, where 300,000 Catholics reside. With a dwindling number of diplomatic allies, Taiwan sees the Vatican as an important relationship to maintain. But Chiang noted that Catholics in Taiwan have long prepared for this scenario. They know the Vatican isn’t ending the relationship by choice, but that its “heart is in taking care of the Catholic church in China, as they have not had freedom for decades.” Yet Chiang believes that if the Apostolic Nunciature is returned to Beijing, the Vatican would send over a delegate with a higher standing, such as an archbishop, to care for the faithful.
Over in Hong Kong, Zen continues to make his case by writing posts on his blog, which Catholic news sites (including popular mainland sites) often reprint. He’s also busy fighting for Hong Kong’s rights as well, calling for universal suffrage and wondering how the Hong Kong people could allow the government to “do so many stupid things and challenge the Hong Kong people.” Zen has also been a leading voice in keeping Christian schools in the hands of the church, although in 2011 he lost a long legal battle against an education bill that restricted religious liberties.
Although Zen is uncertain what the future will hold, he plans to keep speaking out as long as Hong Kong maintains its freedom of speech. Recently he received a letter from a bishop in China telling him to keep talking, because “you are our voice,” the bishop wrote.
“They cannot speak out,” Zen said, shaking his head. “Ah-na-na-na.”