Pope Benedict has promised to consider allowing Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun to retire as Bishop of Hong Kong, and expressed his affection for the city's Catholics. Speaking after a private audience with the Pope - their first one-to-one meeting since he was made a cardinal in March - 74-year-old Cardinal Zen said he had told the pontiff of his desire to retire as head of the Hong Kong Catholic Diocese to play a bigger role in affairs related to the mainland church. 'The Holy Father said he will consider it and said he will give me an answer next time,' Cardinal Zen said after he emerged from the Vatican Apostolic Palace yesterday afternoon. But he refused to reveal what developments in Sino-Vatican affairs he discussed with the pontiff. Nor would he say whether Pope Benedict had given him any new mission related to the church in China. When asked whether the Pope had any message for the faithful in Hong Kong, Cardinal Zen said: 'The Holy Father has always reminded us of his great affection towards Catholics in Hong Kong.' The South China Morning Post reported last week that Cardinal Zen wanted to retire as Bishop of Hong Kong to spend more time on affairs related to the mainland church. The cardinal also met Cardinal Ivan Dias, head of the Holy See's Congregation for Evangelisation of Peoples, who oversees worldwide missionary affairs with special responsibility for mainland seminarians training in Rome. Although the Pope's desire has yet to be revealed, church insiders believe Cardinal Zen will be in Hong Kong to stay. Beatrice Leung Kit-fun, an expert on Sino-Vatican affairs based in Macau, said: 'Saying he would consider it meant he would not make a decision any time soon.' Professor Leung added: 'How can the Pope afford to lose Zen in Hong Kong? Beijing would feel vindicated' One Vatican source said it was 'out of the question' that Cardinal Zen would be transferred to Rome, as his position in Hong Kong was highly valued. The source said it was extremely unlikely that the cardinal would play any role in Sino-Vatican diplomatic negotiations as this was a matter for the Vatican Secretariat of State and that Beijing was hostile towards Cardinal Zen. 'If he is to retire as bishop but to stay in Hong Kong, his role and power should be very clearly spelled out,' the source said. Finding a successor could take three to 12 months after Cardinal Zen's retirement.