Why Did the Pope Drop Mention of Hong Kong at Sunday Angelus?

“These texts don’t exist until the Pope actually pronounces them,” said Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni.

Pope Francis greets Cardinal John Tong Hon, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Hong Kong, during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, June 12, 2019.
Pope Francis greets Cardinal John Tong Hon, Apostolic Administrator of the Diocese of Hong Kong, during his weekly general audience in St. Peter’s Square, June 12, 2019. (photo: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA)

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis’ last-minute decision not to speak about troubles in Hong Kong at the Angelus on Sunday has caused a good deal of discussion in Italian media.

As usual, an embargoed copy of the Pope’s Angelus address was distributed to journalists accredited to the Holy See on Sunday morning. These written comments included a paragraph on Hong Kong, which the Pope skipped when he delivered his address in St. Peter’s Square.

Hong Kong is experiencing considerable unrest after China passed a new national security law on June 30 which, according to Beijing, aims to “prevent, stop and punish acts and activities endangering national security.” Its critics say it would give law enforcement officials in China sweeping powers in Hong Kong, undermining the city’s semi-autonomy and likely leading to a subversion of Hong Kong’s laws. The law has already prompted some Hong Kong citizens to flee the city.

The Register is unable to report what the Pope would have said about the issue because, under the Holy See’s embargo rules, accredited journalists can report only on the words the Pope actually delivers.

“These texts don’t exist until he [the Pope] actually pronounces them,” was the brief reply Vatican spokesman Matteo Bruni gave the Register when asked why the Pope chose not to say them.

But the omission comes after the Pope and senior Vatican officials have remained notably silent about persecution of Christians in China or the troubles in Hong Kong, even when security forces violently clamped down on protests last year against China’s attempt to impose an extradition law in Hong Kong.

Some observers believe the reason is because the Vatican doesn’t want to rock the boat after signing a secret provisional agreement with Beijing in 2018 over the thorny issue of nomination of bishops in China. The accord comes up for renewal in September.

“It wishes to avoid saying anything that could be offensive to the Beijing government, and that includes the situation in Hong Kong,” Italian missionary Father Sergio Ticozzi who is based in the city told the Register last month.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the retired bishop of Hong Kong, calls such silence “shameful” and “simply incredible,” especially as he sees the Vatican as already surrendering a great deal and receiving “nothing in return.”

But the Pope’s supporters, led by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Vatican secretary of state, see such silence as a patient and prudent course of action, aimed at keeping channels of dialogue open and yielding more fruit in the long term, even though reports of persecution against Catholics have increased since 2018.

But another question arises: Why pull the paragraph just moments before delivery? This is by no means the first time Pope Francis has spontaneously departed from a prepared script, though it is arguably the first time it has involved an international issue of such significance.

Some critics of the papacy’s relationship with China, referring to the secrecy of the provisional agreement, have speculated that China might have made a last-minute intervention, but the more probable reason is papal governance.

Pope Francis has a reputation of acting on the spur of the moment based on his own personal discernment and feelings. He makes decisions by “praying and trying to feel the Spirit, trying to be inspired, balancing the emotions of the spirit, not reason or logic,” his close adviser Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro once told the Register.

Such arbitrariness has caused disorder and unpredictability behind the Vatican walls over the years, according to many who work there. What happened on Sunday may well just be the latest example.

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun departs the Pontifical Urbaniana University in Rome on Nov. 18, 2014.

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