ROME — A red hat cut through the crowd waiting for Pope Benedict XVI Feb. 28 in the main square of Castel Gandolfo. Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun, archbishop emeritus of Hong Kong, had made his way to Rome to say his farewell to Benedict XVI, and then he followed him to Castel Gandolfo, where the cardinal joined the crowd as a pilgrim among pilgrims.
This was but a small gesture that reflected Cardinal Zen’s deep gratitude for a pope who showed a great concern for the Church in China. Although it hasn’t made headlines, there is evidence that Benedict XVI loved China and China loved Benedict XVI.
Among all the letters the Pope received before leaving the Holy See, one from Chinese clergy and the faithful was released by the Holy See Press Office. It read: “Your resignation made us think of the affectionate love Your Holiness has shown to the Chinese people and to Chinese Catholics.” The letter continued, “They will not forget the long, historic letter that you wrote to Chinese clergy and (the) faithful and the prayer you wrote for China soon after you took your pontifical office.”
Benedict XVI’s letter to Chinese Catholics, sent in 2007, was a milestone. It was the first letter from a pope to his Catholic flock in China since the Chinese Cultural Revolution and the severing of Vatican-China relations in 1951. The 2007 letter clearly illustrated two concepts: the Pope’s deep affection for the entire Catholic community in China and his passionate fidelity to Catholic Tradition and ecclesiology out of which flowed a passion for charity and truth.
That letter brought a temporary thaw in the relationship between the Holy See and the communist nation, which has been strained because it is well known that there are two Catholic Churches in China: the official Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association, linked to the state, whose bishops are illicitly ordained by the government, and the “underground” Catholic Church, which is faithful to the pope and often persecuted.
In January 2007, when the news came out that Benedict XVI was going to send a pastoral letter to the faithful of China, the consecration of bishops not authorized by Rome ceased, and the new bishop of Beijing was elected with the Pope’s consent. But, in December 2007, the improvement in relations came to a halt for more than two years.
In a concerted effort to reach out to Chinese Catholics, Pope Benedict asked Cardinal Zen in 2008 to write the meditation for the traditional Via Crucis (Way of the Cross) on Good Friday. Cardinal Zen, who long has been outspoken on the lack of full religious freedom in China, said he accepted to write the meditation “with little hesitation.” In his meditations, the cardinal prayed for persecuted people and also for persecutors. His meditation did not find opposition in his mainland.
Then, in 2009, China’s president Hu Jintao came to Italy to participate in the G8 Summit. Benedict XVI let him know that he would be happy to receive him at the Vatican. The meeting could not be held, but there were signs that the Pope’s invitation was appreciated: Shortly after the invitation, new bishops were ordained with the twofold approval of the Pope and the Chinese government.
Vatican-Chinese relations cooled again in 2010, with the ordination of Guo Jincai as bishop of Chengde. The Holy See saw the ordination as a painful wound in the ongoing relationship with China because Guo Jincai was ordained by the state-backed Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association without papal approval. It was the first such ordination since 2006 and, to further the insult to relations, eight Vatican-approved bishops were forced to attend the ceremony.
Diplomacy between the Vatican and China improved slightly in 2011, with the installation of Bishop Liang Jiansen in Jiangmen, who had the twofold approval of the Holy See and the Chinese government.
But since Bishop Liang's installation, there have been rounds of illicit ordinations interchanged with ordinations jointly approved by the Vatican and the Chinese government.
The repeated thawing then freezing of Vatican-China relations raises the question: Why does it seem every step toward greater diplomacy is followed by breach in relations?
In an interview with Asia News, Cardinal Zen provides a possible answer: “Benedict XVI is a great pope, a man in love with the truth” who “has done things for China that he has not done for any other country: To no other particular Church has he written a specific letter; no country has a special commission dedicated to it of about 30 members from the two most important dicasteries in the Holy See.”
But the cardinal went on to say Pope Benedict’s “work was wasted by others close to him, who did not follow his line. I’m not here to judge consciences; it is likely that these advisers thought that maybe he did not know enough about the situation; he was unable to pursue the right strategy. In any case, these people have not implemented what Benedict XVI has established as the guidelines for the Church in China.”
China’s First Conclave Cardinal
Cardinal Zen turned 80 in January and retired in 2009, so he won’t take part in the conclave. His work has now been inherited by Cardinal John Tong Hon, archbishop of Hong Kong, who continues the difficult work to find a balance with the Chinese administration, while the Holy See continues to look for a “creative solution” to re-open the diplomatic ties broken in 1951.
Cardinal Tong will be in Rome this week. He will be the first Chinese cardinal to have ever taken part in a conclave. That’s one historical result of Benedict’s love of China.
Andrea Gagliarducci writes from Rome.