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Retired archbishop of Hong Kong Cardinal Joseph Zen hands a letter to Pope Francis at the end of his weekly general audience in Paul VI, at the Vatican. Photo: L’Osservatore Romano/pool photo via AP

Vatican rebukes retired Hong Kong cardinal after remarks on ‘selling out’ of Chinese Catholics

Statement from Holy See says Pope follows Church’s situation in China ‘with special attention’

The Holy See on Tuesday rebuked a retired Hong Kong cardinal who said Pope Francis was not fully informed about Vatican officials’ strategy on China, after the clergyman accused them of “selling out” Chinese Catholics to normalise ties with Beijing.

In a statement referring to news on a “presumed difference of thought and action between the Holy Father and its administrative, the Holy See said the pontiff had been in close contact with his collaborators over the Vatican’s handling of China.

“The Pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues, and is informed by them faithfully and in detail on the situation of the Catholic Church in China and on the steps in the dialogue in progress between the Holy See and the People’s Republic of China, which he follows with special attention,” press office director Greg Burke said.

He added: “It is therefore surprising and regrettable that the contrary is affirmed by people in the Church, thus fostering confusion and controversy”.

Pope greets Chinese faithful in emotionally charged encounter at the Vatican

The statement was issued after retired Hong Kong cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun opened up on his trip to the Vatican, where he delivered a letter to the Pope and had a 30-minute meeting with the pontiff to express his worries about the Chinese government’s suppression of Catholics.

Zen was not named in the statement. The former cardinal said on Wednesday that he would not immediately comment on the Vatican’s statement but would speak on it “in due course”.

On his Facebook page, the former cardinal wrote of his concern over the Vatican asking two Chinese bishops, Peter Zhuang Jianjian and Joseph Guo Xijin, to make way for bishops preferred by Beijing.

During the meeting, Zen asked the Pope if he had time to “look into the matter” of Bishop Zhuang. He said the pontiff replied: “I told [my colleagues in the Holy See] not to create another Mindszenty case.”

Cardinal Josef Mindszenty was the archbishop of Budapest and cardinal primate of Hungary. He was persecuted for his opposition to fascism and communism in Hungary from the late 1910s to the 1940s and eventually jailed. He was also known for criticising the Vatican’s attempts to deal with the Hungarian communist regime.

Zen’s mentality is long past its use-by date

Zen did not elaborate on the Pope’s motives for wanting to avoid a similar situation in China.

“I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China. His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me,” Zen wrote.

Zen also wrote in his English-language statement that Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-fai had in October already brought Zhuang and Guo’s cases to the Pope. The Holy Father was “surprised” and “promised to look into the matter,” Zen said.

In a Chinese statement, the former cardinal wrote that the Pope “did not know” about the matter.

He went on to say: “Am I the major obstacle in the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China? If that is a bad deal, I would be more than happy to be the obstacle.”

The Pope is in constant contact with his collaborators, in particular in the Secretariat of State, on Chinese issues
Greg Burke, Holy See spokesman
Beijing broke diplomatic ties with the Vatican in 1951. Since then, the Communist Party has closed churches and jailed priests. Catholics can legally worship in state-sanctioned churches, which are not overseen by the Vatican, and have bishops appointed by Beijing rather than the Pope. But there is still a network of Catholic churches operating underground in China.

Dr Anthony Lam Sui-ki, a senior researcher at the Holy Spirit Study Centre in Hong Kong, was sceptical of Zen’s remarks.

“He reached the conclusion that the [Vatican] has sold out the Catholics,” Lam said. “That was not the truth. The churches would never do so.”

According to a report by Asia News, which Zen confirmed, a Holy See delegation visited mainland China in December and asked Bishop Zhuang to retire so excommunicated Bishop Huang Bingzhang, a member of China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress, could take his place.

“But even if Zhuang agreed to retire, no one can guarantee that Huang could definitely take Zhuang’s place. It was not a decision that the Vatican delegation could decide. The power to make the appointment is in the hands of the Pope,” Lam said. “It totally does not make sense.”

He added that the Vatican was building ties with Beijing because such a relationship was needed to explore how the lives of Catholics on the mainland could be improved.

“Under the Chinese government’s philosophy, someone who’s willing to have conversations with China is considered a friend,” Lam said.