Cardinal Joseph Zen: "We Must Accept the Present Defeat"

Hong Kong Prelate Says Pope Francis Is Both Optimistic and Cautious About Church in China

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Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong has said Chinese Christians can be optimists even if the situation facing the Church of China has not changed.

Cardinal Zen was in Rome for the start of the 2014 AsiaNews International Symposium Tuesday afternoon in Rome’s Urbaniana University on the theme «Mission in Asia: Pope John Paul II to Pope Francis.» The conference aimed at highlighting and fostering understanding of the continuity between the missionary drive of Saint John Paul II and Pope Francis’ first steps into the Asian world. 

In an interview with ZENIT, the Chinese prelate shared what must be done for his nation’s Church, how Pope Francis is acting in continuity with his predecessors, and whether the recent sign of hope–permission being given for Pope Francis’ plane to fly over China to and from Francis’ apostolic trip to South Korea this August–was, in fact, such a sign, or not.


ZENIT: How do you feel Pope Francis is acting in continuity with John Paul II, in terms of his outreach to Asia?

Cardinal Zen: I think it should be without any doubt because Pope Francis was always very well informed about China. I met him following the work of the synod and also during the other synods, when he was a cardinal, when he spoke about that. And he surely is very interested. But now as Pope, he surely would be very much concerned about China and he has been very cautious. So I think he is the man to guide the whole big project about Asia, especially about China. I realized that he’s full of desires but also very, very cautious. I just gave a small article to AsiaNews. Its title is: ‘Is Pope Francis Optimistic About the Church in China?’ I said: ‘Yes’ and ‘No.’ I mean all the believers are optimists. But [he’s] not overly optimistic, he’s also very cautious. I trust his leadership, with [has] much enthusiasm, but also much caution.

ZENIT: How would you describe the current situation of the Church of China?

Cardinal Zen: I don’t see any progress. For a long time. No progress. And the government has not changed anything. Just a harsh policy. So humanly speaking, there’s not much hope for optimism. We are optimists because we believe in God.

ZENIT:  What do you believe must be done?

Cardinal Zen: To encourage the people to do what they can do in their actual situations and to trust God because all is in his hands. The haste is dangerous because if you want to see the immediate success, then you may go the wrong way. We must accept the present defeat. Pope Benedict XVI said many times: ‘We must be ready to accept the present defeat, but still to persevere and have faith.’

ZENIT: Pope Benedict had done many good things for the Church of China, right?

Cardinal Zen: Oh, very much. Very much. But, unfortunately,  I have to say, much of what he did was kind of wasted because his collaborators were not up to the situation, and they also didn’t listen too much to us. So, I like very much what Pope Francis says: You must go to the periphery. We are the periphery! So they should listen to us.

ZENIT: So when Pope Francis had been given permission to fly over China during his visit to Korea, did that signify a step in the positive direction in terms of improving relations?

Cardinal Zen: That doesn’t mean much.

ZENIT: At this point, do you think the Pope would visit China? Do you think he needs to do so?

Cardinal Zen: Well, I had once said that if they invite the Pope to go, I would tell him not to go, in this moment. Because at this moment, there is no sign you could suppose a good will. So if they invite the Holy Father, it’s to manipulate. So to make things possible, they would have to change much so we can trust them. Otherwise, the Pope will be manipulated and will cause much suffering to the world’s people.

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Deborah Castellano Lubov

Deborah Castellano Lubov is Senior Vatican & Rome Correspondent for ZENIT; author of 'The Other Francis' ('L'Altro Francesco') featuring interviews with those closest to the Pope and preface by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Parolin (currently published in 5 languages); Deborah is also NBC & MSNBC Vatican Analyst. She often covers the Pope's travels abroad, often from the Papal Flight (including for historic trips such as to Abu Dhabi and Japan & Thailand), and has also asked him questions on the return-flight press conference on behalf of the English-speaking press present. Lubov has done much TV & radio commentary, including for NBC, Sky, EWTN, BBC, Vatican Radio, AP, Reuters and more. She also has contributed to various books on the Pope and has written for various Catholic publications. For 'The Other Francis': or

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