Cardinal Bo Steps Up to Speak for the Beleaguered Catholics in China

COMMENTARY: The Myanmar cardinal has shown he isn’t afraid of repercussions when speaking out against the repressive Chinese regime.

Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, during the Ordinary Public Consistory at St. Peter's Basilica on Feb. 14, 2015.
Pope Francis embraces Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar, during the Ordinary Public Consistory at St. Peter's Basilica on Feb. 14, 2015. (photo: Franco Origlia / Getty)

The day of prayer for China is being extended to an octave, with U.S. bishops echoing the call of Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, Myanmar (Burma).

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI established May 24 as a “day of prayer for the Church in China.” The date is celebrated in China as the feast of Our Lady of Sheshan, the national patroness with her shrine in Shanghai. It is also the feast of Our Lady, Help of Christians in many parts of the Church — in Australia she is the national patroness. This year it coincides with the newly-established feast of Mary, Mother of the Church in the universal calendar, which falls Monday after Pentecost.

The Church in China needs urgent prayer. Just last week, communist authorities arrested Bishop Zhang Weizhu, seven priests and 10 seminarians in the apostolic prefecture of Xinxiang. More than 100 police laid siege to a factory building which the underground Church uses as a seminary. If evidence of Catholic life is found in the factory, the Catholic owner of the factory may have it confiscated. 

The Holy See maintained its customary silence on this latest persecution of faithful Catholics in Hubei province. Since the 2018 “provisional” agreement with the Chinese communist regime, the Holy See has not expressed concern, let alone dismay, with the increasing depredations of the regime against religion. Whether that silence was mandated by the “provisional agreement” — renewed in October 2020 — is unknown, as the text of the agreement is still secret.

The role of Cardinal Bo is noteworthy. Created a cardinal in 2015, he was then a secondary voice in Asian affairs, with Cardinal Oswald Gracias of Bombay, the president of the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences (FABC), being the most official voice. There were more prominent prelates in Manila — Cardinal Luis Tagle — and Hong Kong — Cardinal John Tong Hon. All of them were muted on China, following the Holy See’s lead. 

Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, emeritus bishop of Hong Kong, was vocal in denouncing both Chinese repression and the Holy See’s accommodating policy in the face of it. But his denunciations led Pope Francis to treat him as something of an outcast. 

Last fall, when Cardinal Zen traveled to Rome seeking an audience with the Holy Father, he was refused. Later that month, Pope Francis did request a meeting with NBA stars to discuss their social activism; they had to make quick arrangements for the transatlantic trip when the surprising invitation for a papal audience was offered. Many NBA stars grow rich over their endorsement contracts for sporting goods made in China. The NBA itself is careful to grovel before the Chinese regime to preserve access to its market. The Holy See had time for those who grow rich in China.

So with Cardinal Zen, who does not speak for the wealthy who have business interests in China, on the margins, who would speak about the truth in China?

Cardinal Bo has stepped up. In 2018, he was elected president of the FABC. That same year he was appointed one of the presidents of the synod on youth, a sign of papal favor. Since then, with the confidence of this brother bishops and the apparent tolerance of the Holy Father, Cardinal Bo has become the most prominent Catholic voice calling the Chinese communist regime to account.

In April he named the Chinese regime as responsible for the global pandemic and called for compensation to be paid. 

“The Chinese regime led by the all-powerful Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party — not its people — owes us all an apology and compensation for the destruction it has caused,” Cardinal Bo wrote in a column for UCAN, the leading Catholic news agency in Asia. “China as a country is a great and ancient civilization that has contributed so much to the world throughout history, but this regime is responsible, through its criminal negligence and repression, for the pandemic sweeping through our streets today.”

In August, Cardinal Bo signed a forceful statement denouncing the Chinese persecution of its Muslim minority, calling it a potential genocide.

“After the Holocaust, the world said ‘Never Again.’ Today, we repeat those words ‘Never Again’, all over again. We stand with the Uyghurs. We also stand with Tibetan Buddhists, Falun Gong practitioners and Christians throughout China who face the worst crackdown on freedom of religion or belief since the Cultural Revolution,” the statement of some 75 religious leaders said. 

It may have been Cardinal Bo’s voice that led the Holy Father to break his silence on the Uyghurs in late 2020, acknowledging that they were “persecuted.”

Now leading the call for an octave — not just one day — of prayer to call attention to Chinese persecution, Cardinal Bo has emerged, after Cardinal Zen, as the strongest Catholic voice defending the Catholics in China. But while Cardinal Zen’s influence is largely in the past, Cardinal Bo’s is very much in the present.