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The White-Martyr Cardinals’ Dinner

Reflections on a recent dinner with Cardinal George Pell and Cardinal Joseph Zen.

Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Hong, attends the funeral Mass for Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI on Jan. 5, 2023, in St. Peter's Square. / Credit: Diane Montagna

On the night of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s funeral, Cardinal George Pell hosted a dinner in his apartment for a group of like-minded mourners, and all present were delighted that the heroic Cardinal Joseph Zen of Hong Kong, who had been permitted to attend the Requiem by Hong’s Kong’s thugocracy, agreed to join the party. The company assembled at #1, Piazza della Città Leonina, could thus marvel at being in the presence of two contemporary “white-martyrs:” men who had suffered greatly for the faith but had remained unbroken and full of the joy of the Lord.

As Providence would have it, Cardinal Pell, in hosting that dinner, “provided his own Irish wake” (as one of those present remarked after Pell’s unexpected death five days later). It was an apt description of a magical evening, in which the predominant mood of profound gratitude for Benedict XVI animated hours of robust conversation, full of wit and laughter. And as Cardinal Pell remarked afterwards, “Cardinal Zen really was the star tonight, wasn’t he?” Indeed, he was.

At 91 years old and suffering irritating physical disabilities, the Shanghai-born Salesian cardinal remains incredibly energetic, and eagerly spoke about his work in the Hong Kong jail where the great Jimmy Lai and other political prisoners are held. The wardens, it seems, behave decently with Zen, allow him to stay as long as he likes, and don’t (overtly) monitor his conversations with the prisoners. The cardinal told of making several converts in the prison and was asked what he used for catechetical materials. The answers were striking: the Bible and the Catechism of the Catholic Church, of course, but also Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov.

But perhaps the most remarkable moment of the evening came when, after Cardinal Pell offered a moving toast to his brother cardinal, the conversation turned to those times when the Lord seems to be deaf to the pleas of his people — times not unlike what many Catholics experience today. Cardinal Zen reminded the group of the appropriate verses of Psalm 44 (“Rouse thyself! Why sleepest thou, O Lord?/Awake! Do not cast us off forever!”); remembered that those verses had been part of the Introit for Sexagesima Sunday in the old Roman liturgical calendar — and then proceeded to chant, from memory and in impeccable Latin, that entire Introit (which can be heard here!)

Not unexpectedly, the conversation eventually touched on current Vatican China policy, of which Cardinal Zen has been a vocal and persistent critic. The issue, the Hong Kong prelate insisted, was the character of the Beijing regime, which lived in a different ethical universe, lied in negotiations, and could never be counted on to keep agreements it made. This, of course, was precisely what had turned the Vatican’s Ostpolitik in east central Europe in the 1970s into a fiasco: the Vatican negotiators’ refusing to concede the totalitarian “regime factor” involved, and therefore negotiating with communist governments as if they were run-of-the-mill authoritarians rather than mortal enemies of biblical religion.

Confirmation of Cardinal Zen’s analysis of the built-in perfidy of the Chinese communist regime came at virtually the same time as that dinner, when the British publisher Allen Lane releasedThe Hong Kong Diaries of Chris Patten, which the last British governor of the Crown Colony had kept from his arrival in 1992 until the British withdrawal in 1997.  The leading China policy mandarin in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in those days, Sir Percy Cradock, had told Patten that, while the Chinese leaders “may be thuggish dictators,” they were also “men of their word and would stick by what they had promised to do.” To which Chris Patten, strongly suspecting otherwise, replied “I hope that’s true.”

That brisk exchange raises a question: Is Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, taking his cues from the late Percy Craddock? If so, Cardinal Parolin would better serve the Church’s cause in China if he paid attention to the far more realistic Chris Patten (himself a Catholic), who noted in his diaries that “One of the [Chinese negotiators’] more surreal tactics is to decline to explain what something means unless we offer a concession on our side. In other words, openness, accuracy and transparency are themselves regarded as Chinese concessions.”

Cradock and other career British diplomats assumed that, as Chris Patten puts it, “you have to go along with Beijing rather than risk arguments.” That spinelessness was bad enough for Her Majesty’s Government in the mid-1990s. It is shameful for the Vatican today. And it ought to raise serious issues for those who imagine Cardinal Parolin as Pope Francis’s successor.

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About George Weigel 428 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent books are The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), Not Forgotten: Elegies for, and Reminiscences of, a Diverse Cast of Characters, Most of Them Admirable (Ignatius, 2021), and To Sanctify the World: The Vital Legacy of Vatican II (Basic Books, 2022).


  1. The Vatican says it plays the long game, that China is a long-time culture…The Vatican seems to see the Communist regime as an extension of traditional Confucian society.

    McCarrick was admitted to the table, and Bishop Sorondo even got away with opining from on high that China is a model of Catholic Social Teaching and solidarity!

    One might conceivably argue that the times are very precarious and maybe not quite ripe yet for junking an obsequious/naive ostpolitik with the overlaid Chinese power structure, unlike the moment in the 1980s with the failing Soviet Empire…

    But, more obvious is the display of historic role reversal…
    Where Matteo Ricci (a Jesuit!) produced a correct global map showing that China was not the center of the universe surrounded by tributary states, the Vatican now produces a mental map painting the Marxist Chinese regime (an imported Western heresy!) as simply an extension of long-term Chinese culture—and with itself as astute and mercifully attentive to such peripheries. Cardinal Zen knows better.

    Diplomatic astigmatism? Is the McCarrick affliction metastasized and barely (pun intended) managerial—as blind globally to outright contradictions as it is to personal and binary sexual complementarity?

    • A very apt comment Peter.

      The connection via McCarrick is a very, very bad sign in all of this polluted business.

      And I am heartened to see that now George Weigel is pointing out the obvious elephant in the room: His Eminence Parolin.

  2. It seems to me that for this pontificate, and for the Pontiff Francis, “the Church” they are devoted to exists for its own sake, and not for the sake of Christ.

    The essay article appearing this week on the “dirty schism” unfolding in Germany, is quite clearly the prototype, the very model now marketed by the new “Francis-Ideology-Cardinal” the “Eminence” McElroy, who has just had his manifesto published by the subverted Jesuit magazine “America,” an article aptly labeled as “Queering-the-Church” by former Catholic (now Orthodox Christian) Rod Dreher.

    There is no doubt that “Eminence” McElroy intends as does the German Bishops ConferEnce and America magazine et al: they are apostates, have abandoned Christ’s Commandments on sexual morality, and intend to push confessing Catholics “underground” in the Church throughout the world, just like the underground Church in the country that their universal spokesman “Excellency” Sorondo declared to be the model country in the world for Catholic social justice: China.

    As I began, this “dirty schism” they live to build is intent on pushing the faithful underground, a kind of superstructure of spiritual abuse that they, like their confrere McCarrick, have been building toward their entire lives. A “Decapitated “ Catholic Church, as penned by Fr. Imbelli some 1-2 years ago, separated from its own head, Christ Jesus, and existing for its own sake.

    The dire warning of St. Paul resounds: “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all men most to be pitied.”

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