He is preparing, that is, to grant the communist authorities the privilege of selecting candidates. And he is exiling to an island in the Pacific the highest ranking Chinese archbishop in the curia, contrary to the agreement. But in China, Cardinal Zen has already taken the lead in the rebellion
by Sandro Magister
ROME, August 14, 2016 – In China, among the one hundred and nine Catholic bishops there are eight who have been consecrated at the behest of the communist authorities and who have never received the pope’s approval, thereby incurring excommunication, a couple of them with children and lovers.
But for none other than these eight, by the end of this summer or at the latest before the end of the jubilee Francis is ready to perform a spectacular gesture: a pardon.
Francis missed another stunning gesture by just a hair’s breadth last September 26, during his journey to Cuba and the United States.
That day, his touchdown in New York on his way to Philadelphia coincided with the landing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, who was expected at the United Nations. Everything had been calculated for the two to cross paths “accidentally” at the airport and exchange a greeting. Xi was aware of this ardent desire of the pope, but in the end he let it drop and the meeting did not take place.
From that moment on, however, the secret contacts between the Vatican and Beijing underwent an acceleration. In October and then in January a delegation of six representatives of the Holy See went to the Chinese capital. And in April of this year, the two sides set up a joint working group that now seems to have come to an understanding over a point that the Vatican takes very seriously: the appointment of bishops.
Since it has been in power, in fact, the Chinese communist party has wanted to equip itself with a submissive Church separate from Rome, with bishops of its own appointment ordained without the pope’s approval, beholden to a Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association that Benedict XVI called “irreconcilable” with Catholic doctrine.
A Church of the regime, therefore, on the verge of schism with its eight excommunicated bishops, contrasted with an “underground” Church with about thirty bishops earnestly faithful to the pope, which however pays all the costs of clandestinity – oppression, surveillance, arrest, abduction.
And in the middle the vast gray zone of the remaining dozens of bishops who were ordained illegitimately but then were more or less reconciled with Rome, or were ordained with the parallel recognition of Rome and Beijing but must still remain under the iron control of the communist authorities.
The bishop of Shanghai, Thaddeus Ma Daqin, ordained in 2007 with the twofold approval of the pope and the government, has been under house arrest for four years for the simple offense of having resigned from the Patriotic Association. Two months ago he retracted, but he is still deprived of his liberty. The eighty-five-year-old Joseph Zen Zekiun, who has more freedom of speech in Hong Kong, has called “inevitable” the suspicion that this retraction was also desired by the Vatican, just to reach an agreement at any price.
That an agreement has already been reached was confirmed in recent days by Zen’s successor in the diocese of Hong Kong, Cardinal John Tong, with an open letter released in Chinese, English, and Italian that bears all the marks of wanting to prepare the faithful to make the best of a bad lot:
Because the solution at which Tong hints is one of those against which Cardinal Zen has already raised covering fire to the point of threatening conscientious objection:
The example that is brought up most often is that of Vietnam, where the candidate for bishop is proposed by the Vatican but the government can veto him, and then on to other candidates until the government approves one of them.
But for China, the solution of which Cardinal Tong appears to have knowledge sees the roles reversed. The candidate will be selected and proposed to the Vatican by the Chinese episcopal conference. Only that this conference is a creature of the communist party, completely at the beck and call the regime, devoid of “underground” bishops and with one of the excommunicated eight as its president.
“Let us dare to believe that Pope Francis will accept nothing that could endanger the communion of the Church in China with the universal Church,” Tong wrote.
But the pope’s pardon of the eight illegitimate bishops will certainly not suffice to reassure him, Zen, and most Chinese Catholics.
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In the statement cited above in the body of the article, Cardinal Zen harshly criticizes the abolition of the advisory committee for China that had a de facto role at the Vatican already at the time when the prefect of Propaganda Fide – the dicastery with jurisdiction over missionary territories, including China – was Cardinal Jozef Tomko (1985-2001), sidelined during the prefecture of Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe (2001-2006) but then reactivated during the prefecture of Cardinal Ivan Dias (2006-2011) and of his successor Fernando Filoni.
The committee, made up of bishops, missionaries, and experts including Zen himself, was repeatedly convened and consulted all throughout the pontificate of Benedict XVI, author of the 2007 letter to Chinese Catholics that is the most significant pontifical document on the subject in the last few decades.
According to Cardinal Zen, one of the last effects of the guidelines from the committee was the courageous July 7, 2012 resignation of newly ordained bishop Thaddeus Ma Daqin from the Patriotic Association, which came at the cost of house arrest.
But since then, and for the whole pontificate of Pope Francis, the committee has not been convened again, without anything having been said about its fate. With Cardinal Zen now commenting as follows:
“No death certificate, no obituary. Extreme disrespect to the members of the commission and to the one who set it up in the first place! Extreme deviation even from the tradition of formal politeness of the Roman curia! The fact is that one of the two living Chinese cardinals [meaning him, Zen – editor’s note] is barred from knowing anything about how [in the secretariat of state] they are negotiating the affair of the Church in China. There is still a Chinese in Rome, but he must be a nuisance, he was exiled to Guam.”
The “exile” to whom Zen alludes is his fellow countryman bishop and friend Savio Hon Taifai – he too a Salesian like the cardinal – called by Benedict XVI from Hong Kong to Rome in 2011 as secretary of the congregation for the evangelization of peoples, but now dispatched by Francis to an island of the Pacific Ocean, as apostolic administrator of Guam, with an unexpected appointment last June 6.