The Wisdom of Cardinal Zen

Cardinal Zen, the 84-year-old Catholic prelate who has long symbolized the struggle between the authentic and state-sanctioned versions of Catholicism in Communist China, has been in the news twice in the past month. This week, he offered a TLM in Cebu City, Philippines:

A Traditional Latin Mass offered by retired Hong Kong Bishop Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-Kiun took place at the Asilo de la Milagrosa Church as part of the 51st  International Eucharistic Congress (IEC) activities.

Cardinal Zen explained the difference between the current liturgy and the old rite in his homily, before a large number of mass-goers including young people, priests and nuns.

“This [Tridentine rite] has the sense of adoration. Sometimes, you do not hear the priest pray [in the Mass] but we all know what is going on,” Cardinal Zen said.

Stressing the importance of receiving the Holy Eucharist, Zen described it as a “sacrament of faith and a gift by which we know God.”

Zen, 84, urged the faithful to attend Mass and receive Christ regularly, not only during large religious events like the 51st IEC but also on ordinary days.

“How should we forget Him, [and] how could we forget Him? The International Eucharistic Congress is [a] wonderful occasion. So we can remember how fortunate we are with the Eucharist,” the cardinal said.

The Shanghai-born prelate, a vocal critic of the Chinese government’s persecution of Christians, gave a testimony at the IEC last Monday on the situation of Catholics in China and the Chinese government’s policy against practicing religion openly.

It has been my experience that a man who values — and favors — the spiritual richness offered by the Church’s ancient liturgy is much more likely to see the crisis in the Church with clear eyes. So it is perhaps unsurprising, looking back through this lens, to see the strong statements made by Cardinal Zen earlier this month about the current state of ecclesiastical affairs. First, he leads in with an explanation all-too-familiar to those with crisis fatigue:

I have not spoken about the Church in China on my blog for some time now. Certainly not because I am too busy to do so (busy as I may be, I will never lose interest of our Church in China), not because I fear criticism of my ideas (at my age I have nothing to gain or lose).

No, the problem is that I’d like to give some good news, but, as you will note, my fate is that of the prophet Jeremiah. I have searched at length for some good news, but have found none. I realise that during this season of Christmas and the New Year, my complaints are somewhat “extra chorum”, but I cannot be a dog without a bark.

Cardinal Zen then goes on to detail some of the great challenges Catholics in China face, with persecution from the government, churches having their crosses stripped or being destroyed, and Beijing making demands of Rome on how bishops are to be appointed — since the Chinese government only recognizes the state-sanctioned variety of the Catholic Faith. He speaks with growing fear about the compromises being made between Rome and Beijing, and his concern for where this is all leading is palpable:

So what is the formula now under discussion for the appointment of bishops? As an old Cardinal out on the peripheries, I have no way of knowing, let alone guessing.

A recent article “A winter of darkness for religions in China” by Bernardo Cervellera on AsiaNews, says: “From information that has arrived from China it would seem that Beijing’s proposal is…: Vatican approval of the government recognized Council of Bishops,… [and] approval of the competency of this Council (and not the Pope) in the appointment of new candidates to the episcopacy who will be “democratically” elected (in short according to the suggestions of the Patriotic Association). The Holy See must approve the Council’s  appointment and has a weak veto only in “severe” cases, which must be justified if used. If the Holy See’s justifications are considered “insufficient”, the Council of Bishops may decide to proceed anyway”.

If this information is accurate, can the Holy See accept the claims of the Chinese counterpart? Does this approach still respect the true authority of the Pope to appoint bishops? Can the Pope sign such an agreement? (Pope Benedict said: “The authority of the Pope to appoint bishops is given to the church by its founder Jesus Christ, it is not the property of the Pope, neither can the Pope give it to others”).

Do our officials in Rome know what an election is in China? Do they know that the so-called Episcopal Conference is not only illegitimate, but simply does not exist? What exists is an organism that is called “One Association and One Conference”, namely the Patriotic Association and the Bishops’ Conference always work together as one body, which is always chaired by government officials (there are pictures to prove it, the Government does not even try more to keep up appearances, it starkly flaunts the fact  that they now manage religion!). Signing such an agreement means delivering the authority to appoint bishops into the hands of an atheist government.


Even in Eastern Europe of the past, such as in Poland and Czechoslovakia, it was the Church that took the initiative and then gave the Government veto power. In doing so, even if the government vetos a proposal for the hundredth time, it is still the Church that presents a candidate and makes the appointment. If the Government insists on a veto, it will only prolong the impasse, and it will still allow the Church time to look for a suitable candidate. But it is unthinkable to leave the initial proposal in the hands of an atheist Government who cannot possibly judge the suitability of a candidate to be a bishop. Obviously, if the Church gives in to pressure from the government, the only result – despite proclamations to the contrary – is that it will have sold out the pontifical right to appoint bishops. Can this happen?


It is said that dialogue focused on the issue of the appointment of bishops, but there are many other pending problems, when and how will they be resolved?

The aforementioned AsiaNews article stated, again based on information received from China: “Beijing (demands) the Holy See’s recognition of all the official bishops, even the illegitimate and excommunicated ones.” I wonder: is it only the government that makes these demands, without repentance of those concerned? Will the excommunicated only be released from excommunication or even recognized as bishops? Even without any act of repentance? Has the mercy of God come to this? Will the faithful be obliged to obey these bishops?

So much remains to be resolved.

Illegitimate, even excommunicated bishops have abused the sacramental power (including ordination of deacons and priests) and judicial (assigning offices) and the Holy See seems to be without rebuke for them.

Legitimate bishops who participated in illegitimate episcopal ordinations, one, two, even three, four times, without ever having asked for forgiveness, or having received forgiveness from the Holy Father. Also those who took part in the so-called Assembly of Representatives of Chinese Catholics (the clearest symbol of a schismatic church).

Shortly after the Vatican delegation left Beijing, the government organized a large gathering of Church leaders, forcing on that occasion a celebration of all the bishops, legitimate, illegitimate and excommunicated. These are all objectively schismatic acts. The government now can string along a large number of bishops, resulting in an irrecoverable loss of dignity. If the Holy See signed some agreement with the Government without clarifying all these things, it will cause a severe wound to the conscience of the faithful.

It is at this point that I found myself marveling, once again, at the canonical limbo forced upon the SSPX by Rome. Evidently, the repeated, illegitimate consecration of bishops isn’t a problem for the Vatican as long as it’s happening at the direction of a Communist superpower. No discipline of any kind appears to be forthcoming.

Meanwhile, the no-longer-excommunicated bishops of the Society still remain without jurisdiction or canonical rights. The injustice is staggering.

But I digress.

Cardinal Zen finishes his speech with the candor of the truly world-weary, who has already fought the fight. He pulls no punches, not for Beijing, not for Rome:

What makes me restless is the sight of our Eminent Secretary of State still intoxicated by the miracles of Ostpolitik. In a speech last year, at a Memorial for Card. Casaroli, he praised the success of its predecessor in having secured the existence of the Church hierarchy in the communist countries of Eastern Europe. He says: “In choosing candidates for the episcopate, we choose shepherds and not people who systematically oppose the regime, people who behave like gladiators, people who love to grandstand on the political stage.” I wonder: Who had he in mind while making this description? I fear that he was thinking of a Cardinal Wyszynski, a Cardinal Mindszenty, a Cardinal Beran. But these are the heroes who bravely defended the faith of their people! It terrifies me to realize this mindset and I sincerely hope that I am wrong.

On the day that an agreement is signed with China there will be peace and joy, but do not expect me to participate in the celebrations of the beginning of this new Church. I disappear, I will start a monastic life to pray and do penance. I will ask the forgiveness of Pope Benedict for not being able to do what he was hoping that I could do. I will ask Pope Francis to forgive this old Cardinal from the peripheries for disturbing him with so many inappropriate letters.

The innocent children were killed, the angel told Joseph to take Mary and the Child and flee to safety. But today would our diplomats advise Joseph to go and humbly beg for dialogue with Herod!?

God bless and keep Cardinal Zen. His is a voice that needs to be heard.

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