By Timothy Nerozzi, Religion Unplugged, November, 17, 2020
In a handwritten letter sent exclusively to Religion Unplugged, Cardinal Joseph Zen reflected on the Vatican’s continued cooperation with the Chinese Communist Party, declaring the Church in China “schismatic,” and placing the blame on Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin.
“I will never fight with the Pope, but the Pope never tried to silence me, so [I] will continue to protest against Parolin,” Zen said.
Cardinal Zen, a retired bishop from Hong Kong, has been an unwelcome commentator on the Vatican’s secretive and opaque deal with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on the rights of the church in China.
However, it is not the pope who the elderly bishop holds accountable. Instead, Cardinal Zen blames Parolin for deceiving the pontiff and ignoring the wishes of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI.
“Parolin is telling lies shamelessly,” Cardinal Zen writes. “He says that the agreement now being signed is the same already approved by Pope Benedict. This lie is also an insult to Pope Benedict, who is so meek and will not come out to contradict him.”
Cardinal Zen, now a humanitarian activist and religious freedom-fighter, is troubled by the Vatican’s recent announcement, saying it could open the underground Catholic Church in China to further abuses.
“They kept the agreement secret even from me, a Chinese cardinal, so I don’t know its content. Also the people in China don’t know the content, Cardinal Zen said. “So the government could use it to demand everything from our faithful saying that the Pope has already agreed: e.g. forcing the people from the underground to join the Patriotic Association, to join the independent Church, which is objectively a schismatic Church.”
Cardinal Zen blasted the seven Chinese bishops appointed by the CCP and confirmed by the Vatican, accusing them of being tools of the Communist regime and refusing to accept their legitimacy.
“The seven legitimized ‘bishops’ have not shown any good will, they are still working for their own interest, protected by the government. The underground community are more severely persecuted. In both communities, minors under 18 years of age are not allowed to enter church or take part in religious activities.”
But, the frustrated Hong Kong cardinal holds no antipathy for the pope, who he repeatedly expresses devotion and subservience to.
“I recognize the Pope as our supreme leader,” Cardinal Zen wrote. “We, Salesians of Don Bosco, even have 3 traditional devotions: the Blessed Sacrament, Our Lady and the Pope.”
He continued, “I can sincerely tell you that my personal relation with the Pope is very good, and I have evidence to say that we think the same way.”
Cardinal Zen believes that his efforts to make concerns known to the pontiff are going unanswered because of interference from Vatican insiders.
“The strange thing is that he doesn’t answer my letters (I even doubt if he has received them), and his actions seem all in agreement with Card. Parolin.”
However, Cardinal Zen does not discount the effect that the pope’s upbringing in South America can have on his outlook, saying that the communists he was familiar with growing up are different from the communists currently running China.
“I try to explain, remembering that Pope Francis comes from South America, where the communists are the good guys defending the poor from the oppression of military regimes in collusion with the rich, so he may have sympathy for them. He doesn’t have direct experience of communists in power, oppressors of peoples.”
He continued, saying, “But it seems impossible that he should ignore all the facts: the ever harsher persecution on all religions, the police brutalization in Hong Kong, the terrible ‘state security law,’ which takes away all our freedoms, including the freedom of speech.”
Cardinal Zen, an elderly, 88-year-old cardinal, is not eligible for Conclave, and cannot vote for the next pontiff should Pope Francis resign or die in the coming years. However, Cardinal Zen was surprised to find that he was not accepted into the Vatican as a consultant for the pope.
“As an elderly above eighty years, I cannot enter the Conclave; but unless one loses his sanity, a cardinal remains an advisor of the Pope. I learned once that cardinals can always see the Holy Father. But with Pope Francis many things changed, and with Parolin, everything is under his control in the Vatican.”
When asked about his own safety, Cardinal Zen showed little concern.
“Given the state security law, no public person who dares to speak freely can feel safe anymore. I try not to provoke them, but there will be times I cannot keep quiet,” Zen wrote. “For the moment, I don’t feel they are eager to arrest me.”
The cardinal remains outspoken, however, condemning the CCP’s failure to live up to its promises of autonomy and freedom for Hong Kong.
“We don’t have a Bishop for two years, and they say now to be the Bishop in Hong Kong one needs the blessing from Beijing. Nothing remains of the promise of ‘one country, two systems’ of ‘high degree of autonomy.’ From all the facts, during the past two years, you can see that the agreement has brought nothing good to the Church.”
Cardinal Zen is proud of his country’s history, and refuses to allow the CCP to define the nation’s culture or history.
“I love China. China is not the Communist Party. The Party is not eternal, we hope to be one day, soon, free from the tyranny of Communism.”
However, Cardinal Zen believes that after the ramifications of the CCP’s education system and cultural curation could take a generation or more to correct. The most important part of a post-communist China, to Cardinal Zen, will be the resurrection of traditional Chinese values.
“The Communists are only interested in controlling the people, not in their education. So this lack of education has destroyed many traditional virtues of our people: honesty, hard work, kindness… When the party goes away, we will have to work hard to reeducate our people.”
Despite all the failures and deaf ears, Cardinal Zen remains hopeful for the future of his country.
“We believe in God and in the intercession of Our Lady. may all the good people preserve in their faith and the bad people be convicted!” Cardinal Zen concluded.
“You cannot live in fear.”
Timothy Nerozzi is a reporter and editor from northeastern Pennsylvania. He covers religious issues with a focus on the Catholic Church and Japanese society and culture.