Church tribute to cleric's China years

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 21 March, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 21 March, 2010, 12:00am

For the millions of Catholics on the mainland, he was the de facto representative of the Pope. But in the eyes of Beijing, he was just a ghost living in the shadows of Hong Kong's religious and diplomatic circles.

He is Monsignor Eugene Nugent, who after spending a turbulent decade in the city seeking to bridge the great Sino-Vatican divide, has now been named as an archbishop by the Holy See to become papal ambassador to Madagascar.

Speaking at the first Mass he celebrated after receiving his episcopal ordination by Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone on Thursday, the 51-year-old Irish cleric played down the irony of his clandestine position in Hong Kong - which came with a brief to help the 12 million official and underground Catholics on the mainland.

'I count it among the great blessings of my life to have been able to work close to the church in China over the past 10 years,' Nugent said.

Because the Vatican and Beijing have no diplomatic relations, Nugent could not operate from Hong Kong as his peers in other places do - as a papal nuncio enjoying high esteem among other heads of the diplomatic corps.

To address the needs of the mainland church - divided between the 'official' community controlled by the state-sanctioned Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association and the 'underground' community loyal to the Pope - Nugent was sent to head Hong Kong's Holy See Study Mission, which handles mainland matters.

Delivering a moving homily as a guest at Nugent's Mass, Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun - head of a delegation from Hong Kong celebrating Nugent's promotion - described him as a member of Hong Kong's church family despite his quiet presence.

'For many years, he lived and worked in a tiny apartment, sharing meals with the next-door religious community. For many years, he shouldered, single-handed, a huge amount of work for the church in China, with many letters in a language he had no chance to learn.

'Despite his devotion, the Beijing government did not show much kindness to this man who was de facto nuncio to China,' Zen said.

Since coming to Hong Kong at the height of the row between Beijing and the Vatican over the canonisation of 120 Chinese martyrs in 2000, Nugent has handled many controversies - including Beijing's unilateral ordination of several bishops since 2006 - and the often fierce disputes between the official and underground church communities. He strove to resolve conflict between the two communities and facilitate the development of the mainland clergy, in particular giving them overseas training opportunities, but was criticised for being the middleman between mainland Catholics and the Holy See.

However, praise from the mainland and Hong Kong has far outweighed any criticism, which Zen described as misunderstandings resulting from Nugent's limited ability to communicate with mainland Catholics. He was restricted to secret correspondence and third-party messengers. 'This far from ideal way of communicating caused additional suffering to his heart when the misunderstanding and complaints came after all his hard work and loving care,' Zen said. A mainland priest studying in Rome described Nugent as a 'faithful and kind' person who tried his best despite the complicated situation. 'He has done great things for the church in our motherland and we are thankful,' the priest said.

The only time Nugent visited the mainland was in 2003, when he represented the Holy See at an international conference in Beijing. He was refused a visa on two subsequent occasions in similar circumstances.

Nugent said he hoped to visit all mainland bishops loyal to the Pope in the future. 'In meeting bishops and priests from mainland China, one can see a young, dynamic and vibrant church. It is true that one also sees a divided and persecuted church, where faith is tested,' he said before leaving Hong Kong on February 23.

He will assume his new office in May. He is succeeded by Monsignor Ante Jozic, a Croat formerly working in the papal nunciature in Russia.