Cardinal Zen and Jimmy Lai: Holy Warriors Who Need Our Prayers

Sebastian Lai, the son of Jimmy Lai, and Mark Simon speak about the faith and fate of these two devout men who are undergoing tremendous trials for speaking out on behalf of human rights.

Clockwise L-R: Cardinal Joseph Zen. Jimmy Lai arrives at October West Kowloon Magistrates' Courtfor court on Oct. 15, 2020. Dr. John Garvey alongside Sebastian Lai after receiving an honorary degree from the Catholic University on behalf of his father on May 14, 2022.
Clockwise L-R: Cardinal Joseph Zen. Jimmy Lai arrives at October West Kowloon Magistrates' Courtfor court on Oct. 15, 2020. Dr. John Garvey alongside Sebastian Lai after receiving an honorary degree from the Catholic University on behalf of his father on May 14, 2022. (photo: Denny Henry / Shutterstock/CUA)

As Cardinal Joseph Zen may face charges against him this week in a Hong Kong court after his arrest earlier this month, many Catholics across the globe are concerned about the 90-year-old archbishop’s fate. 

Cardinal Zen was arrested May 11 under China’s national security law with at least four others for his role as a trustee of the 612 Humanitarian Relief Fund, which helped pro-democracy protesters in the special administrative region of Hong Kong to pay their legal fees. The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong was detained for ‘collusion with foreign forces’ and has since been released on bail.

Serving as bishop of Hong Kong from 2002 to 2009, Cardinal Zen has been a staunch supporter, long advocating for underground Catholics in mainland China.

A voice near and dear to the cardinal as well as another devout Catholic already serving time in a jail cell, Jimmy Lai, is Sebastian Lai, the son of media mogul Lai, who has become a beacon of hope to so many as he chose not to flee but face what many call “trumped up” charges brought against him. 

Sebastian Lai spoke with the Register May 20, along with Jimmy Lai’s close friend and business partner Mark Simon, on the occasion of an honorary degree being bestowed upon Jimmy Lai from The Catholic University of America. Sebastian Lai accepted the award on behalf of his father and told the Register what he thought the degree meant to him. 

“Dad would be very grateful, and also quite taken aback, by the honor. Our family, as hard as it may be to imagine, has always been low-key, and Dad just sees these troubles as an extension of his media work and his faith,” Sebastian explained. 

Graduates and commencement attendees were moved by the moment as well, given the current hostilities against Cardinal Zen. As Lai told the Register: “I was awed by the award. Dr. [John] Garvey and Catholic University really offered our family hope that others remember Dad and all of Hong Kong.”

Jimmy Lai and Cardinal Zen have a very long and close friendship: Cardinal Zen baptized Jimmy Lai in 1997, and he has since become part of the family. Sebastian Lai said the cardinal has been a fixture in his life since his birth. 

“Cardinal Zen has been in my life since I was born, and he is a wonderful friend to my father. He is a regular at our home for dinner, and I know my father counts him as one of his closest friends, just as our family considers him one of us.”

Understanding the reality of what his father faces and what fate might be in store for Cardinal Zen, Sebastian said he prays for Cardinal Zen and a stop to such religious oppression, saying, “I am praying, just like most Catholics in Hong Kong, that the Chinese government pulls back from its persecution of Cardinal Zen and the Catholic Church in Hong Kong.”

Simon also reiterated the close friendship the two men have had for years. “[The] cardinal was allowed to see Jimmy up until Jimmy’s conviction, but since then I do not know and do not ask,” Simon shared, adding, “They are dear and great friends. … A dinner with the two of them is a wonderfully inspiring night.” 

But with Cardinal Zen potentially facing jail time, Simon shared grave concerns about what might happen to the beloved cardinal who just celebrated his 90th birthday. Simon did not mince words when he told the Register: “I am worried they put him in prison. Xia Baolong is the head of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office. Xia is also the official who ordered the removal of thousands of crosses and destroyed churches in Wenzhou from 2012 to 2017.” 

It is “well known he wants [Cardinal] Zen crushed,” Simon said, adding, “No judge in Hong Kong will decide on Zen; that’s up to Xia and Beijing.”

Simon worked for many years alongside Jimmy Lai at Apple Daily, one of the last media outlets in Hong Kong devoted to a free press and freedom of democracy. He spoke passionately about Jimmy’s own pursuit of truth and the love he has for the people of Hong Kong, telling the Register: 

“Mr. Lai is the type of man who takes pleasure when he hears others are doing well. That’s Hong Kong — an entire city built on refugees of one sort or another — hoping to get ahead, to build lives. Jimmy was a refugee, he was trying to get ahead, and so it’s a natural fit and relationship with old and new immigrants. He is a grateful man, and he is grateful for Hong Kong.”

Simon emphasized that Jimmy is devoted to the truth: “He just can’t be bothered with lying. It’s why we never had a PR department. One time in Taiwan, the news department wanted him to ‘spin’ something on Apple Daily coverage, and he had me close the department, as it was too much trouble.” He underscored it’s “just not in his nature not to be truthful.”

But the opposite pervaded his many court appearances as the Chinese Communist Party tightened their grip on him. Simon told the Register: “Before his trials he knew people in court were lying about his activities. I and others know they are lying. He told the lawyers to do their jobs, but he understood they were scared.”

And living in fear is a constant state for many in Hong Kong, especially with the new security laws of 2020 now in place. Churches have been demolished, crosses taken down. That is why Catholics in Hong Kong are clinging to their faith in these dangerous times. Sebastian Lai shared with the Register that he is no stranger to surveillance, but it’s his faith that carries him and his family through: “The Church has always been part of our family life. We have been under pressure for as long as I can remember. We were followed to church, followed to dinner, followed on walks. Through that we have always held our faith, and I know that without my faith it would be a much tougher road.”

Simon shared that Jimmy has always been open about his faith, telling the Register, “He is a convert. More than a few times he told me he met religious men and women and they were some of the wisest people he knew,” adding that “Jimmy was formed economically through his relationships with Jewish intellectuals, and so faith was always on his mind, he said.”

But Simon also understands that the Catholic faith is inherently in direct opposition to the Chinese Communist regime, telling the Register: 

“As for Catholics, our religion is in direct conflict with communism or any form of totalitarian government. The communists know this, [Chinese President] Xi [Jinping] knows this, and so there will be no quarter granted. Sadly, Pope Francis and the Vatican seem not to know this.”

Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin, told journalists May 12 his “most concrete hope is that initiatives like this cannot complicate the already complex and not simple path of dialogue between the Holy See and the Church in China.”

Although some secular news outlets covered the arrest and conviction of Jimmy Lai and the arrest and possible fate of Cardinal Zen, the religious persecution in China is a completely underreported story and so much propaganda keeps the truth from being told, even with Western democracies that hail freedom of the press and denounce human-rights violations. The toppling of Catholic churches, not to mention the so-called reeducation camps shielding the truth of a Uyghur genocide, hardly make the nightly news or garner front-page placement. But Simon said there is one thing the American public should know about this story: “Don’t think the CCP is stopping in Hong Kong. Xi Jinping wants to replace the U.S. as the leader of the world, and so it’s not going to be a distant-shores issue.” 

Of course the U.S. has slapped several sanctions on the Chinese government, and many organizations and media outlets voice concerns about the fate of so many living under this oppressive regime. But our brothers and sisters in China need our help. Simon said prayer is essential at this critical moment for Cardinal Zen, Jimmy Lai and so many people of Hong Kong, but he also urged action:

“First of all, pray for them, and then, find a stamp, get a piece of paper, and write your senator. It makes all the difference. Then get another piece of paper, a few more stamps and write the Chinese Embassy in D.C. and ask Ambassador Qin [Gang] to help free Jimmy and other dissidents and respect our Catholic faith.”

For now, Jimmy Lai remains jailed. Simon recounted the time period ahead of his trial and sentencing:

“He knew it was coming. Maybe 20 times I, and dozens of other times others told him, he was going away, so get out. To say he wasn’t scared or worried about prison is wrong, but that’s the point: He knew what was coming. He stayed.”

He added, “I do not think the communists understand for Jimmy it was never about who runs China. It was about the rights Hong Kong people were offered until 2047. Jimmy Lai is not a rebellious revolutionary. He’s a guy who wants rights guaranteed — protected.”  

Simon made it clear both Cardinal Zen and Jimmy Lai remain unwavering, compassionate and committed to helping Hong Kong. “They are based in logic and their faith. … Not many know how compassionate they are — not screaming at the moon —they are happy warriors.”

Happy and very holy warriors who desperately need our prayers!