Cardinal Zen in Season and Out of Season

January 21, 2023

“Let us pray that our pope will have more wisdom, I hope he will change his line on the synod.” At 81, Cardinal Joseph Zen has lost none of his outspokenness, especially when it comes to evoking the current pontificate.

Having traveled from Hong Kong to attend the funeral of Pope Benedict XVI, the high Chinese prelate took the opportunity to give an exclusive interview to Il Giornale, published on January 17, 2023.

Although he has been officially retired for several years, the bishop emeritus of the former British concession is nonetheless an emblematic and militant figure for Church freedoms in Hong Kong, which have been increasingly threatened since President Xi Jinping’s accession to power.

The cardinal, who was recently sentenced to a symbolic fine at the end of a political trial, now takes care to visit detainees in prison: “I have baptized several prisoners over the past ten years,” he  confides.

Although he has not yet read the memoirs of Msgr. Georg Gänswein, the source of a controversy in Rome, Cardinal Zen says he “agrees on the subject of the Latin Mass” with Benedict XVI’s former secretary: “The hasty approximations and generalizations of Traditionis Custodes have hurt many faithful.… Couldn’t he have waited for the death of the former pope rather than humiliating him like this?” he asks.

The question of the Synod of Bishops is close to the heart of the high Chinese prelate: “We are very concerned about what could happen at the Synod of Bishops. And I fear that the synod will repeat the same error the Dutch Church did 50 years ago, when the bishops backed down and accepted letting the faithful lead the Church; then their number decreased. Let us pray that our pope will have more wisdom,” sighs the cardinal.

If he voluntarily swipes at Pope Francis, his relationship with the sovereign pontiff remains respectful: after Benedict XVI’s funeral, the Roman pontiff received Cardinal Zen, who spoke of it as “a very warm meeting” thanking the pope for “the good bishop he appointed in Hong Kong,” he explains. “I know it well, he is a Jesuit,” replied the Argentine pontiff with humor.

As for the situation of Catholics in China, it remains the number one priority of the Hong Kong cardinal known for his opposition to the provisional agreement signed in 2018 between the Holy See and Beijing, on the appointment of bishops in China.

An agreement that Rome made to resolve an almost-70-year-old schism, but in which the high prelate sees a “betrayal” which has not made life easier for the faithful: “It is a complex situation; we must never forget to pray in these troubled times,” recalls Cardinal Zen.

And he concludes: “Many faithful (Chinese) testify to their faith with conscience but we know that when the situation becomes difficult, some only think of their own interests. We continue to support truth, justice, and charity. Darkness cannot prevail over light.”

In a few days, China will enter the “year of the water rabbit” according to its traditional astrological calendar. It is a sign considered auspicious, linked to vigilance, prudence, and agility of mind, which are virtues that the Catholics of Hong Kong will need in 2023 in order to escape the burning embrace of Beijing.