An Advent dinner with Cardinal Zen

The Vatican’s “provisional agreement” with the Chinese government has had a demoralizing effect on the country’s faithful Catholics, according to Hong Kong’s Cardinal Zen.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, retired archbishop of Hong Kong, at a February 2018 news conference in Hong Kong. (CNS photo/Bobby Yip, Reuters)

Outdoors, a night of mist and drizzling rain on the slopes of Tai Ping Shan (otherwise known to Hong Kongers as Victoria Peak). But here indoors, good food, good red wine, and good conversation, and all thanks to the hospitality of Joseph Zen Ze-kiun.

Shortly before Christmas, His Eminence hosted Jody (my wife and Santa Clara University colleague) and me at a dinner in the private dining room of a guesthouse owned by the Catholic diocese of Hong Kong. For Cardinal Zen it was a chance to publicize once again his longstanding concerns about the future of Catholicism in China. For us it was an extraordinary opportunity to meet a hero of the 21st-century Church, a defender of Christ, and a tireless foe of the Chinese Communist Party.

Many today fear antagonizing the CCP. But His Eminence can draw on a lifetime of surviving harsh challenges. A childhood in Japanese-occupied Shanghai. Emigration to Hong Kong just ahead of Mao Tse-Tung’s conquest of the mainland. And a return to China during the Cultural Revolution as a member of the Salesian order of priests, where he witnessed close-up the brutalities inflicted on Christians by Mao’s hordes of Red Guards.

As bishop of Hong Kong and subsequently as a cardinal appointed by Benedict XVI, His Eminence has repeatedly defied Beijing. He spoke out against the Communists for their massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. He defended Falun Gong followers as the CCP moved to crush them. And he has voiced support for the right of Hong Kongers to have some say in how they’re governed even as Xi Jinping’s government tightens its grip on the former Crown colony.

Cardinal Zen recalls all these fights as we sit down to dinner. But no sooner has he said grace than he focuses on his latest concern: the “provisional agreement” lately arranged between Pope Francis and Beijing.

Under the terms of this deal, the Communist government will supposedly recognize the Vatican’s authority. But the agreement will also allow Xi Jinping and his officials to hand-pick candidates for appointment as bishops in Chinese dioceses. The Pope will be permitted to veto a choice he dislikes—but he will have no say in initiating the selection of candidates.

We can’t help but ask: why give a Communist government such ecclesiastical clout? Cardinal Zen frowns in reply. The Holy Father wants a grand entente that will allow him to make a celebratory trip to Beijing and consolidate the papacy’s position on the Communist-ruled mainland.

Francis is also eager, says the cardinal, to heal the split in China’s Catholic Church. Since 1951 Beijing has sought to nullify the Vatican’s authority and Catholicism’s moral independence through the creation—and suffocatingly close supervision—of the Chinese “Catholic Patriotic Association” (CPA).  Yet to this day more than half of China’s Catholics have refused to join the CPA, instead remaining adherents of an underground Church that is loyal to the Vatican and to a chain of authority that goes back to Peter the Fisherman.

This loyalty comes at a cost. “Anything may happen to you,” the cardinal points out to us, “if you’re a member of the underground Church.” Attend a Mass unauthorized by the CCP-approved Patriotic Association, and you risk denunciation, job loss, arrest, or worse. Through it all, China’s underground Catholics have stayed true to Rome.

And all for what?

“China’s underground Catholics,” our host tells us, “aren’t afraid of being poor or in prison, of losing their property, or even of dying for their faith. But now they feel betrayed.”

They understand, His Eminence continues, that bishops appointed by Beijing are collaborators with the government, all too willing to rubber-stamp whatever the Communist Party decrees.

So Francis’ “provisional agreement” has had a demoralizing effect. “The Communist Party is now pressuring underground priests to join the Patriotic Association. ‘Sign, sign! The Pope says it’s okay.’ But the priests don’t want to.” Cardinal Zen pauses for emphasis. “They understand what the Communist government is truly like, even if the Holy Father fails to see.”

Both John Paul II and Benedict, His Eminence reminds us, understood a basic reality: there is nothing to hope for in negotiating with a totalitarian dictatorship. Yet the current pope and his advisers think they can bargain with the Communists and get a good deal. “But they will give a lot, and get nothing in return.”

Read these words, and you might mark Cardinal Zen as a gloom-and-doom prophet. And in fact he acknowledges Catholic China’s prospects are grim. But he hasn’t lost hope. He cites the example and inspiring life-story of a fellow Salesian priest—”a confrere of mine,” he says.

Imprisoned under Mao, this missionary was sentenced to slave labor in China’s coal mines. He kept his faith and bore witness to Christ through 30 years’ confinement.

Propaganda officials tried and failed to break him. One day an interrogator slapped a gun on the table and threatened to shoot him on the spot. The Salesian simply smiled. “I’m ready every day for martyrdom.”

Now aged 100 and living in Hong Kong, this survivor recently told Cardinal Zen: “I really thank the Lord for all those years in prison. Before, I used to have so many distractions when I tried to pray.” Through all his sufferings, God gave this living martyr the consolation of divine communion in prayer.

This recollection of his Salesian colleague generates the cardinal’s concluding reflection of the evening. Over coffee he tells us, “In persecution, God has the victory. God is still able to lead everything to a good conclusion.”

To illustrate his point Cardinal Zen cites from memory a meditation on Saint John’s Apocalypse authored in 2006 by Pope Benedict (whom His Eminence refers to with very evident reverence and affection).

Benedict draws attention to John’s vision of Christ as a wounded sacrificial Lamb, who appears before a throng of believers seeking refuge from the torments inflicted by the pagan Roman empire. A mysterious scroll suddenly appears in the midst of this multitude, “a scroll, previously sealed with seven seals, that no one had been able to break open.”

His Eminence quotes Benedict’s reflection on this scene: “Only the sacrificed Lamb can open the sealed scroll and reveal its content, give meaning to this history that so often seems senseless. He alone can draw from it instructions and teachings for the life of Christians, to whom his victory over death brings the message and guarantee of victory that they too will undoubtedly obtain.”

What Jody and I remember most vividly from our evening with the cardinal is his summary of Benedict’s meditation: Only the Lamb that has suffered, that has been martyred and slaughtered, is able to open the sealed scroll. Suffering undertaken in self-giving love can convey wisdom, compassion, and perspective.

What John’s audience faced then, says His Eminence, is what Chinese Christians face now: persecution at the hands of a violent and seemingly all-powerful state. The path pursued by these believers is the path urged on us all by Benedict: “Follow the Lamb Jesus, entrust yourselves to Jesus, take his path, and even if in this world he is only a Lamb who appears weak, it is he who triumphs!”

For decades underground Catholics have stayed faithful to the Lamb’s path, despite everything inflicted on them from the time of Mao to today’s regime of Xi Jinping.

No one in the 21st century has offered better witness to the suffering of these believers than His Eminence Joseph Zen. Let’s all pray that Pope Francis heeds the wisdom voiced by this cardinal, who urges the Vatican to shun power-politic deals with the Communist state. Let today’s papacy follow instead the path of the “Lamb who appears weak”—the path followed faithfully for so many years by the martyred Church of China.

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About David Pinault 4 Articles
David Pinault is Emeritus Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University and the author of two titles from Ignatius Press: The Crucifix on Mecca's Front Porch: A Christian's Companion for the Study of Islam (2018) and the novel Providence Blue: A Fantasy Quest (2021).


  1. In our midst, a man of God. A man of holy abandon. Oh, to be half the man he is. Cardinal Zen in our midst. Men like him make this a thrilling time to be alive.

  2. Too bad Pope Bergoglio wasn’t around 500 years ago.

    We could have avoided a lot of problems with the English.

    I mean, if the Chinese government can install its preferred bishops, what was so wrong with Henry wanting to do so?

    And what was Henry’s big offense, anyway? Simply wanting to divorce his wife and marry another — something that the Bergoglio papacy seems to be telling us needs to be permissible out of compassion.

    Surely reunification with the Anglicans must be only days or weeks away.

    • Cdl. Zen: “China’s underground Church… feels betrayed.”

      By whom?

      Pope Francis!

      All the martyrs from the time of ancient Rome to Henry’s England to modern China and the sex abused by close collaborators of Francis such as McCarrick “feel betrayed.”

      By whom?

      By Pope Francis and all those who are covering up for him.

  3. I am dismayed that the Pope can allow a Chinese Communist government to nominate Bishops. It is effectively to endorse the two most heinous heresies current in the Church. No Chinese Bishop nominated by the Government could possibly be in opposition to abortion or contraception which are two cornerstones of their population control policies. The Pope is knowingly appointing heretical Bishops. I would think he has stepped over the line and is endorsing evil, making himself an uncertain judge of morality. Situation ethics may befuddle the judgment of many people, but this is a step too far by any measure. He has taken an overt step that contradicts the most essential elements of marriage and life.

    • Bergoglio consistently favors pro-abortion bishops. McCarrick, Wuerl, Chaput, Dolan, McElroy, Cupich, Gomez, Cordileone, and most bishops teach that abortion is not evil. How? By giving Communion to pro-abortion people.

  4. I thank you and pray for you daily, Cardinal Zen. I am so saddened by the plight of the Chinese Catholics! Yet I know that their reward will be great. I will continue to pray, and ask my children to do the same. I would be honored to receive your prayers!
    God bless you!
    Mary K. Jones

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