Cardinal Zen, 85, is one of the most prominent Catholic voices in China, and is outspoken when it comes to the country and it’s Christian population.
He spoke ahead of the May 24 feast of Mary, Help of Christians, who is highly venerated among Chinese Catholics. Sheshan Basilica in Shanghai is dedicated to her, where she is also known as Our Lady of Sheshan.
Cardinal Zen recalled that in a letter to Chinese Catholics in 2007, Benedict XVI “composed a wonderful prayer” to Our Lady of Sheshan, suggesting that May 24 could become her permanent feast, and asking that it be a day of prayer dedicated to the Church in China.
In his letter, Benedict said the day is “an occasion for the Catholics of the whole world to be united in prayer with the Church which is in China.”
As the feast is celebrated, then, Cardinal Zen voiced his hope that Catholics throughout the world would pray for Christians in China, who often face persecution for their beliefs while living in an atheistic culture.
When it comes to Vatican relations with China, ever since the communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, the Holy See has had a reduced diplomatic presence in Beijing, with the nunciature being moved to Taiwan in 1951.
China-Vatican relations have been cool ever since, but with some apparent thaws. After Benedict XVI’s letter in 2007, a series of bishops’ appointments approved both by the Chinese government and the Holy See took place.
The Church in China, however, is still in a difficult situation. The government of the Chinese People’s Republic never recognized the Holy See’s authority to appoint bishops. Instead, it established the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (PA), which is a sort of ecclesiastical hierarchy officially recognized by the Chinese authorities.
In his letter, Benedict said the PA was “incompatible with Catholic doctrine,” since in their assemblies, held every few years, both legitimate and illegitimate bishops were treated equally by the PA, particularly regarding the sacraments.
For this reason, Chinese bishops recognized by the Holy See entered a clandestine state, thus giving life to the so called “underground Church” that is not recognized by the government.
But despite the hiccups that still exist, the Vatican has been working diligently to come to an agreement with the Chinese government, particularly regarding the appointment of bishops.
Talks with China are currently centered on bishop appointments, but as of now haven’t touched the possibility of establishing diplomatic ties.
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The deal currently on the table would essentially allow the government to pick a list candidates for the episcopacy and propose them the names to the Pope for approval or denial.
For Cardinal Zen, the danger of this that it leaves open the possibility that the Pope will either be forced to approve a “bad bishop,” or his denial could be vetoed by the Chinese government.
Whereas currently the Vatican sends a list of potential candidates to China to approve or deny, in the new deal it would be the clergy who elect candidates, and the Pope giving the final word on people who may or may not be government stooges.
Cardinal Zen said that while accurate information on the deal is hard to find, at the moment “it seems to be stopped,” which in his opinion is good news, because “the whole initiative starts from the government of China and the Holy Father has only the last word. But the last word may not be enough.”
Right now in China “there is no freedom, so people cannot speak out, and those who speak out, it means they have too good of a relationship with the government,” he said, adding that those vocally in favor “seem to hope in this agreement which may confirm their situation of privilege.”
“So I try to tell the people that no deal is better than a bad deal,” he said. “They should really consider the real good of the Church and not just to have an agreement at any cost.”