The Zen of China

Joseph Cardinal Zen, Bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, turned eighty yesterday. During his episcopacy, he brought the prestige of the Catholic Church to a new height in the cosmopolitan city, where only 5% of its citizens belong to the faith but many of the best schools and charitable institutions are run by the Catholic Church thanks to the work by missionaries since the Great Britain began to rule Hong Kong in 1842.

With his experience as provincial superior of the Salesians and later Dean of Philosophy of the diocesan seminary, Father Zen followed Don Bosco's dream of serving in Mainland China. For seven years he served as guest professor in the major seminaries of Shanghai, Wuhan, Xi'an, Shijiazhuang, Beijing and Shenyang. Just before Hong Kong was to be handed over to Chinese rule, he was appointed Coadjutor Bishop of the world's gateway city to China in 1996. Six years later he succeeded John Baptist Cardinal Wu as Ordinary of Hong Kong. Pope Benedict XVI made him the sixth Chinese Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church in 2006, a news that went on the front page of many local newspapers.

Since becoming bishop, Zen has been outspoken against social injustice and against the Chinese regime, when the Communist government exerted increasing influence on affairs in Hong Kong. Whereas the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law guarantee "a high degree of autonomy" in this special administrative region in the People's Republic of China, the Communist government interfered in Hong Kong through judicial rulings and penetration of the Hong Kong government by pro-Communist politicians. Publicly participating in peaceful protests or prayer events for the democratization of China every year and bluntly criticizing the Hong Kong government and the Communist Party before reporters time after time, he became known as the "voice of Hong Kong". He brought the Church to record-high popularity when he successfully influenced the defeat of a critical legislative motion. However, later when he strongly advocated for the right of the children of Chinese immigrants to live in Hong Kong (the Basic Law gave them this right and the Final Court of Appeals in Hong Kong ruled in favour, but the Court of China made a surprise overrule), he gradually lost the support of most Hong Kong non-Catholics who are in general antagonistic towards immigrants. Even some priests publicly criticized him for interfering in politics and criticizing China.

However, his biggest concern is always for the Church in China. He always says that his cardinalate was a gift by the Pope to China. It is not a secret that he has been financially supportive of priests and seminarians from either the underground and the open Churches in China. Of particular concern to him has been the quality of bishops consecrated in China, with or without papal mandate. Last year after the illicit consecration of bishops of Jinzhou, Leshan and Shantou, he went to ten cities in the United States and Canada and gave countless interviews, talks and press conferences on the pitiful state of the Catholic Church in China, when he for the first time expressed his criticism of the policy of Propaganda Fide for China under the rule of the just retired Prefect Cardinal Ivan Dias who excessively gave in to China and caused great dismay to bishops loyal to the Holy Father. To his delight, since then, a new Prefect who well understands the Church of China has been appointed and a new Secretary from Hong Kong has been installed in the dicastery, who will no doubt take a hard-line policy for the integrity of apostolic succession in China.

His successor, John Tong, with his soft-spoken nature, does not hold a high profile to the general public of Hong Kong. While some compare him to Cardinal Zen and criticize him of not speaking out enough, Tong is wise and prudent, and the most courteous priest whom I know, embodying the best of the Confucian manner and personally replying to all letters. With his elevation to the College of Cardinals on February 18, Tong will most likely be the second Chinese Cardinal ever to vote in a conclave (after Cardinal Thomas Tien did so in 1968), should the papal see become vacant within the next eight years. While there are rumours that the Diocese of Hong Kong may soon be promoted to Archdiocese (with Macau as suffragan?), this will not affect the rank of Cardinal-designate John Tong other than requiring a tiny change on his coat-of-arms (from the bishop's cross to a metropolitan cross).

Effective today Cardinal Zen lost the right to elect a new pope should His Holiness pass away this day. The 1996 law stipulates that cardinals on their eightieth birthday lose the right to take part in papal election should the Apostolic See become vacant the next day. The extra one day is probably added to account for time-zone difference. As an example, suppose the Cardinal of Toronto celebrates his 80th birthday on November 3, and if the Roman Pontiff dies at 3 a.m. (Italy time) on November 3 (which is 9 p.m., November 2 in Toronto, when the Cardinal was 79 years old), on paper the Cardinal is 80 on that day but he should still have the right of elect the new Pope. (Those who are well versed in canon law, feel free to correct me if necessary.)

Personally I have met and talked with the eminent Prince of the Church in more than ten occasions in Hong Kong, Toronto and Chicago. When he paid a pastoral visit to Chinese parishes in Toronto a few years ago, I was honoured to be his chauffeur for two days! I was struck by his frankness and transparency, and his tireless work for the Church despite his old age. After his retirement from the office of the Bishop of Hong Kong in 2009, he continued to speak out against injustices. Three months ago, with the decision of the Court of Final Appeal rejecting the Church's appeal against the new government's attempt of undermining the Catholic school system, he went on a hunger strike for three days, fasting only on water and Holy Communion. Even though his hearing has worsened in recent years, he will continue to be the voice for the Church in Hong Kong and China.

My last thought before I close on my first long post... To my delight, Hong Kong, with its role as the Bridge Church to China, has unofficially become a "cardinalatial see".

And now a video of the Zen:

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