Bishop Joseph Zen Ze-Kiun has been the bishop of Hong Kong since September 2002. A priest of the Salesians of Don Bosco, he holds a doctorate in philosophy from the Salesian University in Rome, and he has taught in Salesian and diocesan seminaries in Hong Kong.
Register correspondent Thomas Szyszkiewicz spoke with Bishop Zen, 71, by telephone May 23. In this second of a two-part interview, the Shanghai native speaks about the Church's relationship with the Chinese government and efforts to spread the faith in Hong Kong.
There have been some rumblings in the Vatican about closer ties between the Vatican and Beijing, and one of the thoughts is that the Holy See would have to drop its recognition of Taiwan. Does that concern you?
It was peaceful for many years already. The Vatican already for several years said there's no problem to drop Taiwan. And the Chinese know that very well. So they know that this is not the problem.
Now, if you ask my personal opinion, I find it still to be a problem because that will be to abandon a friend unilaterally, and it's never happened before. But Beijing understands and also the hierarchy in Taiwan understands that to give some more freedom to so many people, so many Catholics in mainland China, the Holy See may have to do such a thing.
So the problem is that the Vatican would also accept something in return. But the Beijing government is not ready for that. They are not willing to make any concessions. That is what we have seen from their internal documents — they are not going to grant anything to the Church. I think the Vatican knows that, so nothing is going on at this moment.
What would Rome want? Authority over naming its own bishops?
Yes, the appointment of bishops. Even on that, the Vatican is surely ready for some compromise. But it seems that Beijing wants full surrender — that's impossible. It's very frustrating.
What are your major concerns for the people of your diocese?
We are not a small diocese. We are 250,000 local Catholics and we have a little less than 60 parishes. The problem is, I cannot understand why in such an active community — the people are very active, the young people also do many things for the Church — the vocations are few. The priests are getting old, getting sick; the average age is about 60. … So we have started combining the parishes — very painful. I think the vocations are what worry us.
But then we also had a diocesan synod, which lasted two years. And there, we had many directions that we were trying to follow. One very important [aspect] was about marriage and the family, because the situation here is very bad. So we are organizing all those groups and agencies who were already working very well on this and we are trying to coordinate. … It's difficult to spread the right conception of marriage and family and to help all those people in difficulty now.
That's a small percentage — 250,000 Catholics in a city of 7 million. Are there evangelization efforts or plans for them?
We are always doing that, and every year we have 2,000 adult baptisms. … But then also in the diocesan synod, we have deliberated to have a mission year, or evangelization year. It would start from Mission Sunday this October and last a little more than a year.
What kinds of things do you expect your people to undertake during this mission year?
First of all to catechize our people, to say that everybody has the duty to evangelize … start with people in your families, because there are so many families where there are Catholics but there are other members who are not Catholics. And then to bring your friends to church to listen to the Gospel, to join the singing; maybe they will feel attracted. And then we will have some big gatherings where we share our faith and invite everybody to join, etc.
Is there some way Catholics here in the United States can help Catholics in mainland China or Hong Kong?
I think we should talk more to the American audience about what is happening in China and Hong Kong. I don't think we are giving too much information. Especially nowadays people are worried about many other important things, like … Iraq and North Korea.
And sometimes they don't get balanced information. There may be people who are too optimistic because they have been in China, they see the Church is open, the choir singing very well, and they say there is full freedom. But then also there are other people who may be a little imbalanced on the other side …
There are some people here in the United States who have called for a boycott of Chinese-made products because of any number of reasons: Tibet, forced abortions, the one-child policy, the human rights situation in general. If that boycott were to spread, do you think that would have any effect on Chinese behavior?
I really am not sure, because it's just like an embargo. You don't know who you are really punishing: Are you punishing the government or you are punishing the people? It's very difficult to say. Especially now with the entry into the [World Trade Organization], I think it's also very difficult to boycott.
Everybody should encourage the [U.S.] government to let the [Chinese] government know that we care for human rights; to tell the government that the government should not only care for business. I think that would be more positive. And then China may change.
I know they are doing that with Beijing and they seem to have regular dialogue on human rights, on rule of law, etc. I think the United States should do that.
There is the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, and China annually makes it to the list of countries of particular concern.
And it doesn't surprise me that they do that. Carry on, because, although the Chinese sometimes say they don't care, they are not afraid, still they care; they care for world opinion.
The complaint from China is always, “You're interfering in our internal affairs.”
But little by little they accept the discussion on human rights now.
So there is change, but little by little, you say.
Yes, so never give up.
Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz writes from Altura, Minnesota.