VATICAN CITY — The former bishop of Hong Kong, Cardinal Joseph Zen, has underlined the importance of today’s worldwide day of prayer for the Church in China, saying the country currently faces a “really desperate” situation.
Speaking to the Register by telephone from Hong Kong May 24, the cardinal said it’s “very important” to pray for China, as the situation is “very bad,” and the “only hope is from heaven.”
Summarizing the situation in the country, where China’s 12 million Catholics continue to be divided into two communities because of communist state control, he said the government is “enslaving our Church.”
“Our bishops are slaves; they’re just brought everywhere to do what the government wants them to do,” he said. “The Holy See has nothing to do but just watch, and yet it’s important to intervene, especially in the situation in Shanghai.”
In 2012, the Holy See and the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association — the state-controlled church — agreed that a new bishop, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, should be the next bishop of Shanghai.
But at his ordination Mass, Bishop Ma announced he would be resigning his membership of the state church, leading the authorities to place him under house arrest. The death in April of Bishop Aloysius Jin Luxian, former shepherd of Shanghai, has left the see vacant as far as the state authorities are concerned, while the Holy See maintains that Bishop Ma should now be leading the diocese.
“We don’t know what is going to happen,” Cardinal Zen said. “It’s a very bad situation.”
During his weekly general audience May 22, Pope Francis invited all Catholics around the world to join in prayer “with our brothers and sisters who are in China.” In carefully chosen words, he said the Church must implore God for the grace to proclaim Christ with “humility and joy,” to be faithful to his Church and to the Pope, and for Chinese Catholics to live their lives in service to their country in a way that is coherent with their Christian faith.
Concluding his appeal, Pope Francis implored the Virgin Mary to aid Chinese Catholics in “making their difficult commitments increasingly precious in the sight of the Lord.”
“Our Lady of Sheshan, sustain all those in China, who, amid their daily trials, continue to believe, to hope, to love, so that they may never be afraid to speak of Jesus to the world and of the world to Jesus,” the Holy Father said.
May 24 is the memorial of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Help of Christians, which is a day of particular devotion for Chinese Catholics and celebrated at the shrine of Sheshan in Shanghai.
Benedict XVI, in his historic 2007 “Letter to Catholics in China,” instituted May 24 as a day of prayer for the Church in China.
Asked if he hoped for positive changes under President Xi Jinping, who came to office in November last year, Cardinal Zen said: “Nothing at this moment; maybe in the future. We may have to wait a while.”
“From his words, we don’t find any foundation for hope,” he said. “He’s saying the Communist Party is going to have power forever and won’t accept any control by the people; but without the intervention of people, the Communist Party cannot reform itself. It’s too corrupt.”
Cardinal Zen drew attention to a white paper issued this month in which the authorities claim great strides are being made in human rights. He said, “That’s all rubbish, all big lies.”
The government, he added, is also rumored to be instructing institutions of higher education that “universal values, press freedom and citizens’ rights should not be mentioned — that’s incredible; it’s going backwards, in terms of civilization.”
The 81-year-old Salesian cardinal said it is impossible to talk of unity between the two churches at this moment because the state church is “not Catholic anymore” and should not call itself Catholic.
Only reconciliation of the heart is possible, he said, “because the government now has full power, full control, so the situation is much worse than when Pope Benedict wrote the letter six years ago.”
He said he hoped Pope Francis could make effective changes. “He’s very wise, and he’s not timid,” Cardinal Zen said. Pope Benedict, he added, “did so much for the Church in China, but he was reluctant to use his power — he was so kind and gentle.”
Others, including the Holy See, “made many mistakes,” he said, but Benedict “was so patient.”
Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.