In China, "Catholics Are Winning"

Interview With Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun

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HONG KONG, JAN. 8, 2006 ( China’s Communists are still vying for control of the hearts and minds of their countrymen, says Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-kiun of Hong Kong.

In an interview with the Italian newspaper Avvenire, Bishop Zen, 73, known as «the independent voice of the Catholic Church in China,» speaks freely of the situation in his country.

Q: There are some who admire China for its impetuous economic development and others who see it as a threat to the world. From your vantage point, how do you see the country?

Bishop Zen: Beyond many analyses, there is a fact: There continues to be a very heavy yoke in China. The Communist Party wants to control everything, not just structures but also the minds and hearts of citizens.

Today the methods have changed a bit, but deep down the reality is the same. No one dares to really say what he thinks.

Take the case of Hong Kong: The Beijing government formally guarantees autonomy there; we are still free to make our voice heard. But day after day it is extending its control in a very clear and determined way.

However, I do not wish to appear too pessimistic. One can also free oneself from this yoke.

Q: To what are you referring?

Bishop Zen: To the Church, of course! My conviction, which I try to express in a submissive way because it could trigger a harsh reaction from Beijing, is that Catholics are winning. With patience and tenacity they are conquering significant areas of freedom.

The Communist government controls the structures, but no longer the hearts and minds of the faithful. After many years of forced separation in China, the Catholic Church in fact is now only one — all want to be united to the Pope.

Q: The official and underground Churches are still different. What is lacking for full reconciliation?

Bishop Zen: As always, the obstacle is the control exercised by the party. I will explain.

The official Chinese Church is made up of two great structures, the episcopal conference and the Patriotic Association of Catholics, which in fact is the long arm of the Communist Party to control the Church.

For the past two years the episcopal conference has been without a president; after the death of the incumbent, they have been unable to find one they can «trust.»

The head of the Patriotic Association, Bishop Michele Fu of Beijing, is sick and above all is much discredited in the eyes of the faithful. In a word, the two structures are without a head. The one in charge is Mr. Liu Bai Nie, the executive secretary of the Patriotic Association. But he is a boss who runs the risk of being left without a following.

Q: What happened?

Bishop Zen: Many bishops, appointed by the Beijing government, had no peace of heart and wanted to be recognized by the Holy See.

Beginning in the ’80s, Pope John Paul II, with great generosity, accepted such petitions. At present 85% of the episcopate of the official Chinese Church has been legitimized by the Vatican.

Now the bishops that are not approved by Rome feel marginalized; they are rejected by the clergy and the faithful.

The novelty is that, whereas in the past the bishops already appointed by the government requested papal approval, now the candidates to the episcopate of the official Church are concerned about being appointed by the Holy See.

It is an interesting situation, but not lacking in risks, as the candidate chosen by the government is not always the Vatican’s ideal name.

Q: The Holy See recently underlined its willingness to establish diplomatic relations with Communist China, severing relations with Taiwan and moving the Nuncio from Taipei to Beijing. Are we close to an historic agreement?

Bishop Zen: The universal Church is concerned about the millions of faithful in Communist China and is willing to take a very painful step.

We must explain to the faithful of Taiwan that it’s not a betrayal, but a necessity imposed by circumstances. In a word, it isn’t a decision that must be proclaimed hastily. Moreover, what will we be given in return? Is the Beijing government prepared to grant religious freedom? This is the question.

Q: What is your impression?

Bishop Zen: I see that, while the Vatican works for an agreement, the Chinese Communists aren’t in any hurry. They would rather solve some problems as, for example, the episcopal appointments of many dioceses that are vacant.

And I have the impression that the Patriotic Association will try to place its men to counteract the appointments it has had to suffer in recent times, such as that of the auxiliary bishop of Shanghai.

I don’t see an agreement around the corner; more time is needed.

Q: Is it true that Pope John Paul II asked you for help to realize a great desire — that of visiting China?

Bishop Zen: It was the beginning of 1997. We spoke for a long time and the Holy Father did no more than repeat: I want to go to China!

I replied: But I can’t do anything!

There was talk of a possible trip to Hong Kong for the closing of the Asian Synod, but the Beijing government immediately said no.

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