Card. Zen on the Pope’s letter to Chinese Catholics

A couple stories are out that the Letter the Holy Father promised to Chinese Catholics will be coming soon. 

One report from WDTPRS’s favorite, Joseph Card. Zen of Hong Kong, says that it may be shared with the goverment in Beijing before its release.

The text is not going to be changed in any way by government reaction, however.  This is a courtesy gesture.

The Catholic newpaper The Sunday Examiner reports that Card. Zen says tha though drafts were prepared for the Pope (whcih I might add is always the case) the Pope took the work them to himself.  He won’t simply sign something drafted for him.  Card. Zen predicts there were be backlashes from the government.   In his open comments about the upcoming letter, the Cardinal is clearly doing some damage control, on the one hand, but also preparing the ground for a good reception.

Cardinal Zen, in what follows, gives considerable space to debunking what he considered a very dangerous article from UCANEWS about the Pope’s upcoming letter.  Card. Zen identifies in that article what he sees as the government line.

At the end, Cardinal Zen make a strong and emotional statement which you should mis reading.

Here is Cardinal Zen’s statement  (my emphasis).

Cardinal speaks on how we should be prepared to accept the Holy Father’s letter

Everybody is waiting for the promised letter from the Holy Father to Catholics in China. It is believed that this letter will probably be published during the Easter season.

All the Catholic faithful, Chinese and otherwise, as well as all people concerned with the Church in China, are awaiting this letter with great expectation.

Those who helped prepare the initial drafts of the pope’s letter are waiting with curiosity. They know that this is going to be ‘his’ letter. His Holiness will not just sign the drafts prepared by others, but will take responsibility for every sentence in the letter.

The people from the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and from the Religious Affairs Bureau, who promoted the illegitimate, episcopal ordinations in China last year, must be waiting with anxiety. They probably anticipate a letter unfavourable to them and may even be plotting some action in retaliation.

The Chinese government may be perplexed as to what to expect from the letter. On the one hand, it may remember the Holy See’s stern statements of May and December last year; on the other hand, it has noticed the highly conciliatory posture of the press release at the end of the meeting at the Vatican towards the end of January.

The clergy of the “underground” (unofficial) faithful on mainland China must be in a hopeful mood while waiting for the letter. They appreciated the encouragement signified by the words of the Holy Father on December 26, which were repeated in the press release of January 20.

The clergy and faithful of the “open” (official) Church on mainland China are also full of expectation for the pope’s letter, but that expectation may be varied. The majority is expecting clear directions from the letter. In the recent past, several have been complaining about the supposed lack of clarity on the part of the Holy See. They anticipate that the awaited clear instructions may not please everybody. They are prepared, however, to accept unreservedly the guidance of the Successor of Peter and Vicar of Christ on earth, even if they have to pay dearly for it.

However, there are also members of the “open” Church who hope that the Holy Father will lean more in the direction of compromise (“not to provoke the Chinese government”, they say), so that Sino-Vatican relations may soon be normalised.

An article, representing this position, written anonymously by a priest on mainland China, was published by UCAN News on March 20. It was prominently reported in the Sunday Examiner of April 1.

After a careful reading of this article, my honest opinion is that while claiming to be impartial, it is very close to the official government line. The reporting of the facts is selective, the analysis and evaluation is ambiguous. The likely intention of the article (surely futile) is to advise the Holy Father to move towards compromise, that is, to confirm the present, abnormal situation. We are sure that the Holy Father will not be influenced, but the article is nonetheless dangerous. In fact, inside and outside China, it may mislead readers into having wrong expectations regarding the pope’s letter and making a wrong response when it comes out. This would lessen the letter’s effectiveness.

In my detailed assessment of the article, I see that it emphasises the faithfulness of the members of the “open” Church to the universal Church and their respect for the pope as their “spiritual leader.” It forgets, however, that the “open” Church, even today, still proclaims, officially, to be an independent Church.

The article also criticises the underground Church for its stubbornness in opposing the government. The underground Church, however, is “guilty” only of not accepting the opportunity of being a member of an independent Church.

The article blames the media overseas for being hostile to China by claiming that persecution is still going on there. However, the overseas media are simply reporting facts. Though I disagree with the position of the Kung Foundation, I don’t think their reports on imprisoned bishops, priests and faithful are just hearsay.

The author blames people for using western standards in making their judgments. However, when fundamental human rights are in question, there should be no distinction between western or eastern standards.

The article still mentions events like the Opium War to defend the backward religious policy of the government and the author is of the opinion that we should appreciate the progress made by China in recent years and accept the still existing limitations. This we surely do. But if you see them taking two steps forward and one step backward, or one step forward and two steps backward, you should not appreciate their backward steps. And if the still-existing limitations make the situation fundamentally unacceptable, we are bound to protest. No matter how big the cage, a bird locked inside is still a “bird in a cage.”  [It is interesting to see, in Hong Kong, that men still take their birds for a walk in the mornings.  They stroll about with their bird cages.  This image, therefore, is very immediate for the Chinese.]

In evaluating the present tension between China and the Holy See, the author of the article presents himself as impartial. In reality, by doing so, he dispenses himself from holding the Catholic position. He puts all the blame on differing understandings of politics and religion in Chinese and western cultures. He says, “The government does not accept that the Church should appoint bishops without government approval, because they do not understand the Catholic faith. The Church does not accept that the government should appoint bishops without the Holy See’s approval, because they do not understand the political expectations of China.” So, what should the conclusion be? That the Church renounce her faith so as to fulfill the political expectations of the Chinese government!

A more detailed examination of the article’s assessment of the illegitimate episcopal ordinations of last year reveals a surprising criticism. The author criticises them severely, qualifying them as “unreasonable” and “going too far.” In the English translation, words like “shock”, “bitterness” and “regret” abound. (The author seemingly has inside information that the highest authorities were not actively behind those initiatives, which goes to confirm our guess).

After condemning the ordinations, however, the article then says that it is more important to ask the question, “Why?” And in answering the question, the author justifies those ordinations by pointing to the inner motivation behind the facts. What was actually meant by those ordinations was to show China’s strong discontent with the Vatican for repeated appointments of clandestine bishops and the disapproving of bishop-candidates elected with Chinese government support. In addition to this, it signifies China’s protest against anti-communist, anti-Chinese comments made by some overseas media.

So, the final, solemn and impartial judgment made in the article is, “At such moments, claims of sincerity by both China and the Vatican fail to pass the test.”

However, looking at the development of the situation in China, our understanding of the facts is that the illegitimate ordinations were really extremely unreasonable, because they suddenly reversed the then-direction of development.

For 20 years or so, both the Chinese government and the Holy See had been trying to compromise with each other with generosity. The Holy See recognised a great number of illegitimate bishops and approved a good number of bishop-candidates elected with Chinese government support, without demanding that they publicly renounce their belonging to the “open” Church. The government, on its side, was well aware of the recognitions, approvals and even direct appointments by Rome and did not take any punitive action.

At this stage, the situation was ripe for both sides to sit down and work out a reasonable accord. The demise of one pope and the coming onto the scene of another seemed to represent a good opportunity. Unfortunately, suddenly, we were inflicted with those ugly facts, which shocked the whole world, saddened the whole Church and challenged the harmony that the government professes to promote.

Rightly, every one was asking, “Why?”

We in Hong Kong are unanimous in thinking that the plausible explanation of the illegal ordinations is that there are people who are afraid that, after the normalisation of relations, they may lose their power and acquired advantages. That is why they tried to disrupt the negotiations. The author of the article must have learned about this viewpoint of ours. Why did he not bring it into the discussion?

The author mentions many big, recent religious events supported by the government. I think we Catholics would have been very happy if we had simply been allowed to organise our own activities. Every time the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the Religious Affairs Bureau intervene, you may suspect a political aim. For example, they brought Father Ma Ying-lin to the Religious Peace Summit in Moscow to shake hands with cardinals; they brought him to the Peace Summit in Tokyo to concelebrate with archbishops and bishops; and photos were taken and publicised to “prove” that Father Ma is recognised as a legitimate bishop.

If we ask what the likely intention of the article is and what the author wanted to achieve, we are in the region of conjecture. However, it is not difficult to see that the article aims at maintaining the status quo. The reasoning is quite simple, if the problem is all about misunderstanding, then the solution is in mutual compromise. The author gives priority to solving the problem between the states (China and the Vatican) through diplomatic relations. To make that a reality, the Holy See must posit whatever signs of good will are conducive to that purpose.

Under the beautiful words “mutual understanding,” “trust,” “good will” and “friendship”, the substance of what the article wants to say is, “Do not irritate the government, do not insist on the normalisation of the religious situation or of religion freedom.” The author of the article speaks precisely according to the government’s plans, in that even after the establishment of diplomatic relations, there should be no big changes and the status quo should be maintained (so that the acquired position and advantages of certain people be safeguarded).

The article hopes that the pope will opt for compromise. This hope is not likely to be fulfilled.

But the article is nonetheless dangerous. The author is knowledgeable and an expert in sophisms. By presenting himself as an impartial analyst, he can easily succeed in misleading people into nurturing false expectations with regard to the pope’s letter.

If readers, inside and outside China, accept the suggestions of the article, they will expect the Holy Father to emphasise with friendship rather than truth and diplomatic relations rather than real normalisation and real religious freedom.

People with such expectations, I believe, will be disappointed when the letter does come out. They may even side with those who may eventually take an irrational, retaliatory action. Then, the Catholic Church in China would be on the road of no return to becoming a national Church, independent from Rome. The best elements of the Church would, then, become frustrated and vanish. Then, the normalisation of the life of faith would become a far away dream.

We must believe that the only purpose of the Holy Father in writing such a letter is the real normalisation of the religious situation, so that the millions of Chinese Catholic faithful can live their lives of faith happily and bear abundant fruit. Let us be united in prayer and action behind this unique purpose for which we must stand up. Let us join the majority, or the almost totality of the faithful on mainland China, who are ready to accept, without reservation, the directives contained in the Holy Father’s letter.

We beseech the leaders of our nation cease allowing an enslaved Church to bring shame on our country, and to let a free and respected Church bring honour to our strong and respected country. Please, give these people, who are your citizens, the happiness of freedom to practice their faith. They will be willing to offer their lives for the good of their country.

+ Joseph Cardinal Zen Ze-kiun


I think this is instructive for all of us waiting for the Motu Proprio. 

There are places in the world people struggle simply to live and die as free men

The Holy Father has many burdens on his desk and shoulders.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Diane says:

    Humbling indeed, Fr. Z.

    A priest who was at my parish for 2 years is now serving in a mission in a remote area of the Philippines. We get letters from him on how people struggle for basics.

    In China, how much worse?

    How can we appreciate what we have if we do not meditate upon the plight of others?

  2. Ryan says:

    This illustrates just how self-centered are they who whine incessantly about the Holy Father not dropping everything else to do thier bidding on the motu proprio or whatever.

    They say “why can’t the Vatican chew gum and walk at the same time? Why can’t the Pope just hand down tough decisions and expect everyone to folow them. These people have obviously never held important leadership positions of any kind. In reality, it is often the case that one cannot, in fact, “walk and chew gum at the same time,” at least not if one want to do things in a quality and effective way.

    The China situation is difficult and touchy, and requires much attention, as does the Italian Bishops Conference’s current battle. To say that the Pope should just concentrate on everything at once displays deep, deep ignorance of large organizations and how they work.

    So, whiners, enough complaining about how a 79-year old man doesn’t ask “how high?” when you say “jump.”

  3. John Polhamus says:

    “The Holy Father has many burdens on his desk and shoulders.”

    Father, this will be a watershed moment, but I personally believe that Benedict is the only man in the world strong enough to shoulder those burdons as well. He spoke at the beginning of the pontificate of the possibility of a smaller church. The truth usually hurts. I hope he will be as firm with Cardinal Mahony and his ilk as he seems to intend to be with the Chinese Patriotic Association. The line has to be drawn somewhere, sometime, by someone. It is not one His more popular sayings with the easy-going in the church, but Our Lord did say, “I come not with peace, but with a sword; and I will divide…”

    By your other comment about people struggling to live as free men, I am put in mind of the struggles of the English Catholics during the late 1500’s and early 1600’s, and how the church went about it’s business of telling it like it was at the time. Freedom is really not the issue; Truth, and Faith in it, is the issue then as now. Nor did the liklihood of imprisonment, torture and gruesome death stop the Jesuits from bringing the Traditional Roman Rite to the English people. Talk about birds in cages. They lived in holes, and watered the English church with their blood. Perhaps the Jesuits will accept a new challange with as much gusto. It’s a tall order.

    God Bless the Pope,
    Cardinal Zen,
    and the Catholic Church in China

  4. danphunter1 says:

    Thank you Father,
    This sheds light on the severe limitations our Chinese brothers have placed on them when trying to follow Holy Church.We certainly have much less to complain about when we only have to drive 3 hours to a Classical Rite mass.Nothing.They on the other hand pay an enormous price for true worship.God bless China.

  5. kms says:

    Let’s see, what shall I deal with today? Opression in China or dancing in LA?

    The Holy Father has many children to handle.

  6. ThomasMore1535 says:

    This is indeed humbling.

    We always complain how hard it is to find a reverent Novus Ordo mass, or how far one has to drive to attend a Tridentine Mass. But the people in China in many instances DON’T EVEN HAVE ANY MASS TO ATTEND IN THE FIRST PLACE. Or, if they do, they risk imprisonment by associating with the underground church. Forget trying to find a traditional mass. This is about just having access to Holy Mass in the first place.

    It certainly makes our troubles over here seem very minor by comparrison.

  7. Brian Day says:


    As the one who originally asked the “walk and chew gum” question, all I can say is, “Ouch!”

  8. Christopher Sarsfield says:

    I agree with all the comments, but I will say that the MP is very important for the Church in China especially. The patriotic Church do not use the New Mass, but instead use the Traditional Mass, it is only the underground Church that uses the New Missal. This is why I feel Cardinal Zen was one of the first to be consulted about the MP. With regard to the Pope’s guidelines for China and the faithful in the Patriotic Church, I lean towards him insisting on the recognition of the primacy of the papacy, but I doubt he will make them change their liturgy.

  9. danphunter1 says:

    Mr,Sarsfield,That is interesting.I did not know that the Communist government sanctions the Tridentine Mass,if I am reading you correctly,and the Church loyal to Rome uses the Novus Oordo.

  10. Christopher Sarsfield says:

    To me this is one of the most under reported aspects of the MP. The Pope is clearly trying to deal with the Chinese, in order to do this it is essential that the MP be in place. I would even say that the Pope is looking more to the Patriotic Church with the MP than the SSPX. If you remember one of the first “leaks” concerning the document came from Cardinal Zen. BTW, I do not mean to imply that the New Mass is used exclusively by the underground Church. I only meant to say that the underground Church does use the New Missal. I would even say that the MP must be in place before the Pope releases his letter concerning the Church in China.

  11. Christopher: I believe the “Patriotic Association” is no longer using the older form of liturgy.

  12. Christopher Sarsfield says:

    Thank you for the correction Father. It seems that the Patriotic Church revised their liturgy in the 1990s adopting the New Mass for the most part. Sorry for the confusion.

  13. Christopher: On the other hand, Card. Zen himself has been a strong supporter of the older form of Mass in Hong Kong. He has gone to celebrate it himself where it is used in HK.

    As I said… one of WDTPRS’s favorite Cardinals… and he is not even National League.

  14. Dan Hunter says:

    You could say His Eminence offers the Classical Rite now and Zen.

  15. John says:

    ‘It certainly makes our troubles over here seem very minor by comparison.’ As someone who works for the Church in an affluent Western country, I’d like to disagree with this. I would once have found it convincing; but that was before I got an accurate idea of the state of the Church from seeing its operations from the inside. Actually lay Chinese Catholics are better off than most lay Catholics in England and Australia (the countries I have experience of), and they are better off than the majority of the faithful in the diocese of Cardinal Mahoney, who is mentioned above. The lay Chinese are at least in a position to identify where a mass celebrated by someone faithful to the Church is to be found, and they have I expect a much better chance of coming across such a mass than anyone in the two countries or the archdiocese I mention. They do not have the problem of going to a mass that is celebrated by someone who rejects the Catholic faith and wishes to destroy it, without realising that this is what is going on. Mahoney, and the majority of English and Australian bishops, aren’t just about ridiculous liturgies; they are not Catholics, and their object is to destroy the Catholic faith, something they have been doing with a good deal of success. This is a problem that has been going on for forty years, so there is no unreasonable impatience in expecting it to be addressed – now – which is what the MP is partially aimed at doing. Priests in China of course face a different prospect, that of torture and death, which priests in affluent Western countries do not; the latter merely face steady all-pervasive pressure from their clerical environment to compromise their faith. I would bet quite a lot of money, if that were possible, that in the eternal perspective, the Western situation will turn out to have been much more dangerous than the Chinese one; that a much higher proportion of English and Australian priests will end up in hell that Chinese priests will. There will be no money on the day of judgment though, so I wouldn’t be able to collect.

  16. John says:

    sorry, should have been ‘than Chinese priests will’.

  17. Stephen Morgan says:

    Cardinal Zen was our parish priest some of the time we lived in Hong Kong. I can tell you all that he is a man of gentle steel, faithfully true to the Church and a liturgical delight. Not only that but he was a real father to his parish.

    As for the struggle to be free in China, the following story may interest some:

    Twelve years ago, when my daughter was baptised in Hong Kong, the priest who baptised her, Fr Bernard Tohill, SDB, had returned that morning from a short trip into the mainland. He had been asked to go and offer Mass in a small village about 300 miles into China for a community that had been without the Mass since 1949. He had relearned how to say the old Mass and was expecting be be saying Mass for about a dozen people.

    When he arrived in the village, there were over 1,000 people waiting to hear Mass and after the first Mass he heard confessions for 6 hours straight. The following day he heard confessions for another 6 or 7 hours before celebrating Mass at which over 700 made their Communion.

    The faith in this area had been kept alive by families and small groups meeting to pray the Rosary and to learn the Catechism, for over 45 years.

    Whenever I hear stories about China, I am reminded of Fr Bernard’s story and I offer the day’s sufferings, frustrations and joys to our Lord through the intercession of His blessed Motherfor the Church and people in China. Our Lady of Consolation, pray for China.

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