The titular leader of Catholics in China in an exclusive July 10 HUMAN EVENTS interview in the rectory of Washington’s St. Mary, Mother of God Church spoke out against the religious policies of that country’s Communist government, including the renewed arrest and torture of priests, coerced participation in government-staged ordinations and the pending takeover of Catholic schools in Hong Kong.
“All the examples in history show that when the bishops are under the control of the government, the Church goes wrong,” said Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired archbishop of Hong Kong, who still commands respect for his years of outspoken support for religious freedom inside his homeland.
The cardinal is a slight man who wore his black cassock with the red buttons, piping, fascia and zucchetto of the prince of the Church. His stop in the nation’s capital is one of 10 visits to Chinese communities in America and Canada. Before celebrating Mass in Chinese with the co-located Our Lady of China Parish, Zen celebrated the church’s regular scheduled traditional Latin Mass.
A priest traveling with the cardinal, who asked that his name be withheld, said in addition to the visit was an opportunity to visit old friends and to keep Chinese Catholics in the two countries informed about the struggles of the Church to operate freely.
“In France, England and Eastern Europe—it is always a disaster for the Church when it abandons its traditional independence,” said the cardinal.
Today in China, the Catholic community is divided into two, by the government’s creation of an official church referred to as the “open” church, which is sanctioned by the government and the underground church that never wavered in its unity with the Holy See.
“People should understand, we are one Church and one family, so they must open their hearts, understand each other and respect one another,” he said. “On the spiritual level, we must work to create rapprochement of hearts.”
But, a structural merger is very difficult. The open church is completely under the control of the government, so how can we unite with that? It is impossible. If you unite with that you are wrong,” he said.
On the other hand, it is impossible for the open church to merge into the structure of the underground church, he said.
For a time, since 2007, the Vatican and the government were trying to find a way to cooperate, but those efforts stopped when the Communists began ordaining new bishops without Rome’s approval.
The cardinal said he knows priests and bishops who attended the ordinations against their will.
“There are three kinds who participated: those brought by force, those brought by heavy pressure and those who went willingly,” said Zen, a native of Shanghai, who was ordained a priest in 1961.
“It’s very bad that people have to be forced—but, it is even worse for us—more sad for us—that some went willingly,” he said.
The retired prelate said he there are bishops who have been corrupted by the government. “Some bishops who go get paid a good sum of money. We know one bishop who received 200,000 renminbi and for another it was 300,000. We know many things in Hong Kong about what is going on. It is no longer possible to keep things secret.”
The bribes and bullying have been accompanied renewed arrests and tortures despite greater scrutiny and communications, he said.
“When they arrest a priest they don’t put him in the prison, they put him in a guest house of the police,” he said.
“Unfortunately, they are going back to the use of torture,” he said. “One priest was kept for five days without sleep and they kept him standing as officials interrogated him in three shifts. Then, after five days, he simply collapsed and then, they beat him. It is incredible.”
Although China is a one-party state, the cardinal said the central government is too wary of the world watching its behaving to direct the severe harassment.
“In China we say, ‘The mountains are high and the emperor is far away,’” he said. “The central government is not always in control.”
The situation in Hong Kong, which transferred from British colony to the sovereignty of China in 1997, is different again.
“Hong Kong is a part of China, but it one country with two systems,” he said. In the 13 years since the handover, the Communists have respected the continuation of British law and customs in the city.
From Hong Kong, Zen said he can speak freely without fear of personal harm or arrest. “It is a cosmopolitan city and they are not foolish enough to do something that would create trouble for themselves.”
Still, there are tensions. The cardinal is repeatedly denied permission to visit the mainland. In recent years, he was allowed to visit family for three days in 2004 and during the 2010 Shanghai Expo, he was allowed to visit his native city for a morning and afternoon, he said.
At one point, Zen was subject of speculation that he was a “secret cardinal,” elevated by Pope John II, but not named because it would make him a bigger target for the Communist authorities.
Zen said he is aware of the speculation, but he is confident it was not him. In practice, only the pope knows. “How could I know, even if I was the secret cardinal because it is a secret.”
The late pope took the secret to the grave, he said. “But, if I had to guess, I would say that it was the bishop of Xian, who was a very good man.” That man, Archbishop Li Duan died in 2006, and was a vocal opponent of the government-controlled church and the oppression of the underground church.
As he continues his travels, the most important message Zen has for his audiences is: Stay informed and remain hopeful. “We must work for a merger, but at this moment, we would have to force it. To force it now would mean forcing the underground church to surrender the government structure.”
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