Hong Kong's Bishop Zen on the Church in China

Sees More Clouds on the Horizon

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MILAN, Italy, OCT. 5, 2003 (Zenit.org).- Despite the persecution suffered by the Church in China, and the difficulty of fostering vocations, there are encouraging signs of unity within it, says Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong.

Bishop Zen, whose clear positions and outspoken opposition to government decisions has made him a voice of conscience, is one of the highest-profile Church figures in Asia.

He says he is not made of the stuff of martyrs, and for this reason “Providence decided [that I] should leave Shanghai in 1948, at the age of 16, a year before the advent of Communism in China.”

In this interview with ZENIT, Bishop Zen describes the situation of Catholics in the country, divided between the government-approved “patriotic” Church and the “underground” Church, which stresses its communion with the Pope.

The Catholic Church was established in Hong Kong in 1841. The diocese’s 310 priests serve 230,000 faithful. There are some 4,000 baptisms a year. The majority of the diocese’s Catholics are Chinese, although there are also active groups of Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese, Indians, French and Germans.

Q: What geographical and spiritual role could Hong Kong play?

Bishop Zen: The Lord has his plans for Hong Kong and for China. Hong Kong is a door for the Church to return to China. The Pope has always asked the Church in Hong Kong to be a bridge for China, and in these last decades we have sought to carry out this task.

Q: Could you tell us about your mission as pastor in this huge continent?

Bishop Zen: In 1984, after a long absence from China — save for a brief visit to Shanghai in 1974 — I applied to teach in the seminaries of the official Church in China. Finally, after four years of waiting, the authorization came. It was at the end of the ’80s, after the Tiananmen episodes — the government needed to show a different face and promoted visits to China.

I made many trips to China from 1986 to 1996, residing there for several months of the year. After the seminary of Shanghai, beginning in 1993, others opened their doors to us. There was great reciprocal enrichment.

We were given the possibility of strengthening their formation, but at the same time we received a great lesson of faith, which was put to the test by the persecution. We seemed to be the benefactors; in fact, we were aware that we were being given much! The success of Vatican Council II is also due to the suffering of many persecuted Churches.

Q: It is difficult to talk about the Church in China. What is the actual situation?

Bishop Zen: For a long time, the Church in China has been a Church of silence. However, today, to a degree, it has a voice.

The reality of the Church I have seen is consoling. In the past, we could not visit the “underground” Church; we went to the seminaries administered by the “official” Church, but we felt profoundly that at heart this [underground] Church was and is with Rome.

When the government allowed us to mention the Pope in our prayer, I perceived great emotion among Catholics. In China, the first Prayer of the Faithful is for the Pope, because they remain faithful to Rome. Of course, no one says so publicly, just as the government pretends not to know it.

In recent times, also for these reasons, the situation of Catholics in China is worsening. The three documents approved in March, regarding the “functioning” of the “official” Church and of the bodies responsible for controlling it, are worrying.

The situation of the seminaries is the most painful. At present, the government is more severe than in the past — although in China there is a saying, “When the road is narrow, you know it will widen,” and vice versa.

I can mention some examples. The bishop in Xian is a saint, but when in 2000 he opposed the ordination of five bishops not authorized by the Pope, he was “punished”: He was prohibited from teaching in his seminaries. In Hebei, there is a large seminary with 200 places, but the number of seminarians is kept strictly at 29, despite the large number of vocations.

Q: What are the prospects for the future?

Bishop Zen: I think the new leaders have not had the chance to assume control and exercise it completely. Many of [former Chinese president] Jiang Zemin’s men still have one function. Only when the new leadership has completed the transfer of power, will we be able to evaluate the situation. Perhaps the new leaders will introduce improvements in religious policy! The first steps, beginning with the motto “No One Is Above the Constitution,” are encouraging.

In any case, the situation in Hong Kong is not pleasing either. From the religious point of view, freedom is guaranteed and there are no restrictions, but the social and political atmosphere is difficult, especially after the issue of Article 23, which allowed the local government to behave with arrogance.

At present, through a fraudulent maneuver, the Hong Kong authorities are trying to take away from the Church the control of Catholic schools — some 300 in the city of Hong Kong, attended by 25% of the school population — which by law are subsidized by the state, which pays teachers’ salaries and maintenance of the buildings. The next battle will be on this topic. I have just written an article in the diocesan weekly; we’ll see what the consequences are.

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ZENIT Staff

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