Rome: Cardinal Zen Was Received by the Pope

February 08, 2023

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong, who was arrested last year under the city's national security law, had been granted permission by a local court to travel to Rome to attend the funeral of Benedict XVI, announced AFP.

After authorities confiscated his passport during his arrest, a magistrate ruled on January 3, 2023 that the 90-year-old cardinal was allowed to leave Hong Kong for five days for the funeral of Benedict XVI on January 5 at St. Peter’s Square.

Benedict XVI created Msgr. Zen a cardinal in 2006 and chose him to write the meditations for the papal stations of the Stations of the Cross at the Colosseum in 2008. On his personal blog, Cardinal Zen published an article on January 3 entitled: “In this hour where Pope Benedict left us for heaven. He does not hide his gratitude to Pope Benedict XVI for what he has done for the Church in China.”

“First, a letter (June 29, 2007) which was a masterpiece of balance between the lucidity of Catholic ecclesiological doctrine and humble understanding with respect to civil authority. (…) Unfortunately, this letter has been somewhat spoiled: by errors (probably also manipulations) in the Chinese translation and by biased quotations against the obvious sense of the letter.”

The Chinese cardinal also underlines “the establishment of a powerful commission to take care of the affairs of the Church in China; unfortunately under the new president of said commission it has been made to disappear quietly without even a word of respectful farewell.”

Francis Receives Zen

When asked by America, the Jesuit magazine, Cardinal Zen explained that he briefly greeted the sovereign pontiff in the sacristy of St. Peter's Basilica before the funeral mass on January 5. The pope invited him to a private audience the next day at St. Martha’s House in the Vatican, inviting him to his private apartments.

“It was wonderful, he was so warm,” said the cardinal, who has regularly clashed with the pope in recent years. He mainly blames him for signing the agreement on the appointment of bishops in China in 2018, which he experienced as a betrayal for the Chinese underground Church.

During his previous visit to Rome in 2020, Pope Francis did not agree to receive the man who criticized his diplomatic strategy vis-à-vis communist China. The cardinal then expressed his disappointment in the media. This time he praised the warm welcome given to him by the pontiff.

More recently, after the publication of Traditionis custodes, Cardinal Zen was one of the rare voices within the College of Cardinals to publicly question the validity of the liturgical reform by the head of the Catholic Church. Although he does not belong to the traditionalist milieu, he sometimes celebrates according to the old form of the rite.

Cardinal Zen did not raise these issues with America, explaining that he took advantage of this meeting with the pope to thank him for the appointment of a “good bishop” in Hong Kong, Bishop Stephen Chow – “a Jesuit!” exclaimed Francis. The cardinal confided that he also explained to the pope that he has continued to work as a chaplain in prisons despite his advanced age, contributing to the conversion of prisoners, which Francis liked.

In his apartment, the Holy Father showed him a statue of the Virgin of the Shrine of Sheshan – the highest place of Chinese Catholicism and the birthplace of Joseph Zen – which Zen had given to him after the 2013 conclave. Finally, Cardinal Zen was authorized to go to the Vatican grottoes – still closed to the public –to meditate at the tomb of Benedict XVI.

However, this welcome did not prevent Cardinal Zen from remaining critical of aspects of the pontificate.

Zen Appeals His Beijing Conviction

Sentenced to pay a fine of 4,000 Hong Kong dollars (491 euros) by the Hong Kong courts on November 25, 2022, Cardinal Joseph Zen decided to appeal on December 14. The Hong Kong court found him guilty for failing to register the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund which existed to provide financial aid to protesters opposed to Beijing.

The other four members of the association's board of directors are also appealing their convictions. They consider that their association pursued a purely humanitarian and not political purpose, thus exempting them from registering with the register of companies, as required by a recently adopted law.

At first instance, Judge Ada Yim had ruled that the aims pursued by the association were also political, underlining the commitment of all members to their opposition to Beijing.

A few days earlier, on December 10, Jimmy Lai, a magnate of a Catholic pro-democracy media outlet in Hong Kong, was sentenced to a further five years and nine months in prison after being found guilty of fraud over the terms of the lease of his newspaper's offices.

The 75-year-old founder of the now-closed Apple Daily newspaper was nearing the end of his jail term in December 2020, resulting in multiple convictions for his participation in unauthorized pro-democracy protests. In addition to his prison sentence, Cardinal Zen's friend was fined HK$2 million ($257,000), and banned from running companies for eight years.