Bishop Joseph Zen, a Rejected Cardinal

October 02, 2020
Saint Martha’s House within the Vatican

“The Pope's slap at Cardinal Zen”: the front page of Il Mattino on September 27, 2020 must have made people grind their teeth in the vicinity of Saint Martha’s House. The Italian online news site is indeed reporting the arrival - or rather the disappointment - of the former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, to the Vatican.

Aged 88, the high prelate decided, once again, to take up his pilgrim’s staff, in order to plead the cause of his former episcopal see: for more than a year and a half in fact, the diocese of Hong Kong has been vacant, and rumors of the appointment of a priest favorable to the Communist authorities is creating a stir within the Catholic community of the former British colony.

Since the provisional agreement signed between the Holy See and Beijing on September 22, 2018, the terms of which are still secret, the appointments of bishops seem to depend on a concerted choice between the Church and the Chinese authorities.

However, Fr. Peter Choi is a candidate who is likely to have the endorsement of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), a certificate likely to worry Hong Kong Catholics attached to their independence: “Fr. Choi would divide the Catholics,” this is in substance the message that Bishop Zen had come to deliver to the Sovereign Pontiff.

But the heavy doors of the pontifical apartment remained closed to the old Chinese prelate.

The Argentine Pope, due to a busy schedule, it is said, could not find the time to receive him: it must be said that the earthquake of the disgrace of Cardinal Angelo Becciu, on September 23 last, still makes the high walls of the leonine enclosure tremble.

“I have come with a letter to the Holy Father,” explains Cardinal Zen, “to tell him that if Fr. Choi’s appointment happens, it will be a disaster for the Church in Hong Kong, a disaster lasting decades. I told him I'm here for 3-4 days, if he wants to call me… But I haven’t been called. So I handed the letter I had written to the Pope to his personal secretary, Gonzalo Aemilius. I understand he must be very busy ...”

Faced with the dilemma of safeguarding the agreement with Beijing and the alarming situation in Hong Kong, Vatican diplomacy has chosen to remain silent, avoiding taking a position on the violations of fundamental rights that have taken place since the new security law came into force, at the origin of many demonstrations of protest.

During his last apostolic trip, when questioned by journalists, Pope Francis compared the protest movements in Hong Kong to the French yellow vests, choosing to put Beijing’s muscular methods into perspective: “Repression? There is also some in France,” declared the Holy Father.