Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun traveled to the Vatican again last week, unsuccessfully seeking an audience with Pope Francis. 

Had he been granted an audience, the 88-year-old Chinese cardinal intended to personally deliver a letter urging the Holy Father to appoint a new bishop for the troubled city of Hong Kong. 

That episcopal see has been vacant since the death of Bishop Michael Yeung in January 2019. Since then Cardinal John Tong, Bishop Yueng’s immediate predecessor, has been serving as the diocese’s apostolic administrator. 

In this interview conducted after he failed to get an audience with the Pope, Cardinal Zen — who himself served as Hong Kong’s bishop from 2002 until his retirement as a bishop in 2009 — discusses the tense political situation in the city, where recent efforts by the Communist regime to restrict the former British colony’s freedoms have been countered by a pushback from a deeply committed pro-democracy movement. 

He also spoke about U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s impending Vatican visit, and Pompeo’s call earlier this month for the Vatican to speak out publicly against the Chinese government’s continuing suppression of religious freedom and human rights. 

And he detailed his continuing concerns about pastoral guidelines issued by the Vatican last year with respect to the government’s requirement that clergy sign a civil registration document declaring their acceptance of the autonomy and self-administration of the local Church, independent of Rome’s authority. Such civil registration of Catholic clergy with the government-controlled Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) has been a longstanding requirement, but many clergy refused to register and aligned themselves instead with the “underground Church” that has remained loyal to Rome. 

The pastoral guidelines were released in the wake of the September 2018 provisional agreement between the Holy See and China regarding the appointment of bishops. While its specific terms have never been publicly stated, it’s known that the Vatican agreed to the deal partly in hopes of uniting the government-controlled CCPA and the underground Church. 

Following the release of the Vatican guidelines, however, Cardinal Zen circulated a set of “dubia” to other cardinals detailing his assessment of the serious problems he believes are associated with the guidelines. 

 

Your Eminence, you have returned again to Rome to speak with Pope Francis. Why are you here, what did you wish to speak with him about and did you get to see him? 

This year we are waiting in Hong Kong to have our bishop. It’s more than one and a half years that we have no bishop. And now the whole atmosphere is very much political, so I would like to remind the Holy Father that we really need a bishop who is a good shepherd for the flock. 

And I remember that at the beginning of his pontificate, he gave many recommendations: “A bishop should be like this and they should not be like that …” And so, I hope he remembers all those things and really gives us a good bishop and not to pay too much importance to the political aspect of the problem. 

Maybe I am a little too much worried; the Pope knows that but I think it’s good for him to hear a voice of an old man who has been also the bishop of Hong Kong. I think even the Pope sometimes may need encouragement from people. 

 

Did you see him? Did you speak with him? 

Actually, I handed a letter to his secretary and actually I cannot really expect on so short notice to have been seen, because he must be very busy. But I’m satisfied that my letter has reached the Holy Father himself. 

 

Secretary Pompeo from the United States is visiting the Vatican this week. He recently wrote an op-ed in First Things, about the situation in Hong Kong and the situation of the Church and the crackdown of the Communist Party in mainland China against the Catholic Church. Did you read this [op-ed] and do you have any thoughts on that? 

I know that it is about some kind of seminar here in Rome about religious freedom. Now, Mr. Pompeo is a convinced believer and in the recent pronouncement he came out very strongly to defend religious freedom for everybody, especially in China. And so, I hope he may achieve something because really religious freedom is so important. It’s really worthwhile that he goes around the world to preach that. 

Sure, he is the Secretary of State of the United States, but he is a real convinced believer. I think he reads the Bible every day. So, I hope he receives a good welcome in Rome. 

 

Now we know that the Sino-Vatican deal will be renewed very soon. And there are some concerns in the United States with Secretary Pompeo, on this Sino-Vatican deal. You have been someone who has spoken out in support of the Church in China and the rights of the Church in China. You have spoken about the provision that requires clergy in China to sign a civil registration. Has there been any developments? Have you heard from Pope Francis or Cardinal Parolin in regards to the questions that you have raised, and do you think that Secretary Pompeo will be able to also speak to them on this? 

Maybe. Mr. Pompeo maybe be very well informed of all these details because people know better about the secret agreement. They may not know very well about this pastoral guidance for the registration [of clergy]. 

For me, this last document last year about the civil registration of the clergy, I think, is much more important and much more, I would say, devastating than the agreement itself. Because, though I don’t know the text of the agreement, people say that it was about the appointment of bishops. But actually in these two years nothing happened, because of that agreement, because the two episcopal ordinations were agreed already many years ago. 

With the pretext of that agreement, which is secret, the government did many things which are not in the agreement. So … I have nothing to say about the renewal or otherwise, of the agreement, because I don’t even know the text. 

But I am very much worried about the more recent document, this so-called “pastoral guidance,” because in that document the Vatican is encouraging people to join the Patriotic Association, to join the independent Church, which even Pope Francis agreed, during a private audience, that it is objectively a schismatic Church. 

So, I’m really surprised that there was not much voice about that agreement. 

Actually, I wrote a letter to all the cardinals. I didn’t receive much response. I think that’s terrible, because the underground [Church] has for so many years suffered so many things, just to be faithful to the Catholic Church, but nowadays they are invited to surrender. That’s terrible. 

So, I really want to clarify the subject with the Pope, with Cardinal Parolin, but obviously I couldn’t get anything. It’s more than one year and I could not have received anything. 

 

We have been seeing in Hong Kong recently a crackdown because of the new security law on individuals who are protesting in favor of democracy. You have been very vocal on this as a leader of the Catholic Church in Hong Kong, but we have also seen Apple Daily founder Jimmy Lai arrested. We also know about the arrest of Joshua Wong, who is a student and who has been a leader of this protest. Do you think that you are considered a threat to the CCP and to the regional government? And if so, do you consider yourself as potentially being arrested in the near future for your very vocal support of the pro-democracy movement? 

Everybody knows that when Hong Kong went back under the sovereignty of the Beijing government [in 1997], we were promised that we would enjoy high degree of autonomy. So it is enshrined in the basic law that we are going to have a democracy. And I think we believed in that, but little by little, we realized that the communists don’t keep promises. And so we started a kind of movement. And that at this moment I think that the whole people joined … Because you see obviously we could then not enjoy democracy in a colony but we enjoyed all kinds of freedoms. But now with the central government not very democratic we need democracy in Hong Kong to save the freedoms. And they promised that. So we demanded, but they always postpone, postpone, postpone, and they’ve never given us real democracy. 

So people felt the need to raise the voice. We are entitled to have that. And a big movement, but always peaceful. You can you can see on many pieces of information that we marched — one millions or two millions, all peaceful — but we didn’t get anything from that. 

And so we are united, all the people who want to get what they promise even though we have different choice of method, and what we’ve got from all this movement now is the state security law from Beijing. That’s terrible. I read carefully the whole thing, but at the end, I said I didn’t read it because you just can say one sentence: They can do anything to you. 

They can search your home without a warrant from the from the court; they can bring you away without any help from the lawyers, and even your family cannot visit you; they can bring you into mainland China, then maybe sentenced in a court in China. So that’s terrible. 

So obviously they wanted to silence our voice. That’s also terrible because that was the only thing left for us — our voice. And in this moment I give my advice for everybody: to be cautious and not to speak too much because it’s danger now. They can bring you away and you can disappear. But then as a senior citizen I have to speak out my mind and so I think they have more than the material to accuse me and so to take me way. It will not be a surprise but I am not doing anything to provoke that so there are still so many things maybe I can still do, to help many different categories of people. I’m working also as one of the trustees of a foundation to help those in difficulty. And so we are in the hands of God. 

 

What is your message to Pope Francis and to Cardinal Tagle, who is in charge of the Congregation for Evangelization, who is supposed to provide a recommendation for a bishop in Hong Kong? 

You know, as an old man, a retired bishop I should be very humble before the Pope and also before the prefect of the Congregation for Evangelization, but in this moment I should put a little aside the humility. 

I really want to remind them that we need them to be encouraging our people in the true faith, and to give us a good bishop, according to the heart of Jesus. And leaving aside maybe some political consideration. Because it’s too important. And I think the Hong Kong people in Hong Kong deserve a good bishop. 

I hope my words would be useless — I mean, not necessary, because they know already — but in this moment they must forgive me for my anxiety. It is really worrying that after more than one and a half years, we still have no bishop. And the rumors are about the Vatican having more political consideration than necessary. I hope my message would be not necessary, but it may be useful. 

 

And what is your message to your people in China and in Hong Kong? 

For the people in China actually normally I never take initiative to contact them, because it might be dangerous for them. But now, since almost nobody can come to Hong Kong anymore and in some indirect way many people ask my advice: I tell to everybody to be quiet and to be patient, and not to confront the government. 

There was a degree of tolerance from the government for many years, but since these last two years they enforced all the laws. Now the underground Church is not allowed to have their churches. Maybe to your surprise in several places there were churches even underground, even in big capacity. And where such underground churches are not possible still the underground priests could say Mass for the underground people like in Shanghai. And everybody knows. It’s no secret, but now no more. They enforced the law. So they can’t have any more Mass in the underground. So I tell them, you can even sacrifice the Mass, the sacraments, but not the faith. 

You just imagine all the martyrs who were in prison for so many years. They couldn’t have Mass for so many years, but they are full of the grace. And I say do not confront the government because you may suffer useless sufferings because they may take away all of your money. They can put you in prison — that is not necessary; you just quietly retire. I do not think nowadays it’s difficult to survive, just survive and wait for better times. 

In Hong Kong, we are becoming very much in a similar situation as in China now. So, I would give the same advice: don’t provoke the government, because it is dangerous now, and because they can put you in prison for any word you say. But then, when it’s necessary, you have still the need to give witness to the truth and to your faith. So it is a very dangerous situation that we are in now. So, we rely on the prayers and of all our friends everywhere in the world. 

Thank you very much Your Eminence! 

 

Editors’ Note: This interview has been edited for style and length.