Cardinal Joseph Zen at 90: ‘A Great Gift of God to Hong Kong’

As the longtime champion of human rights celebrates his birthday this week, some of his friends and associates tell the Register about his continuing contributions to the Church in China and elsewhere.

In this picture taken on September 11, 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, speaks during an interview with AFP at the Salesian House of Studies in Hong Kong.
In this picture taken on September 11, 2020, Cardinal Joseph Zen, former bishop of Hong Kong, speaks during an interview with AFP at the Salesian House of Studies in Hong Kong. (photo: Isaac Lawrence / AFP/Getty)

ROME — Close friends of Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun will hold a celebratory lunch for the indomitable bishop emeritus of Hong Kong and staunch defender of religious and civil liberties, who turns 90 on Thursday.

Although it will be a small celebration due to COVID-19 restrictions, each guest will bring dishes to cook for the cardinal who has culinary skills of his own. “He’s a good cook!” one of the invited guests told the Register Jan. 11, adding that his “most famous dish is pork.” 

The small and modest celebration belies the extent to which the Salesian cardinal is esteemed and supported in Hong Kong, mainland China and beyond where many Catholics and non-Catholics value his decades-long outspoken defense of religious and political liberty in the face of Chinese communist oppression and persecution. 

“He is hugely admired in Hong Kong, right across the generations,” said the British Catholic pro-life peer and staunch advocate for human rights in China, Lord David Alton of Liverpool, who compared him to Cardinal Ignatius Kung Pin-Mei

Cardinal Kung spent 30 years in Chinese prisons for defying China’s attempts to control Catholics in the country’s state-run church, the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association. Cardinal Zen, Lord Alton said, is “following in his footsteps” by being “unwavering in his courage and determination not to betray all those who have suffered for their Faith at the hands of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”

A source in Hong Kong who, due to sensitivities caused by the Chinese Communist Party’s ongoing crackdown on democracy and human rights in Hong Kong, asked not to be named, said the cardinal is “a great gift of God to Hong Kong.” He has “a lot of support here and is doing what a lot of Catholics in Hong Kong agree with,” the source told the Register Jan. 11. “They applaud what he’s doing.” 

Born in the town of Yan King-pang, near Shanghai in Eastern China, Joseph Zen Ze-kiun was ordained in 1961 and became the Salesians’ Provincial Superior for China for six years before being appointed coadjutor of the diocese of Hong Kong in 1996. He was appointed the Catholic Church’s sixth Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002 where he served until 2009. Pope Benedict XVI elevated him to the cardinalate in 2008. 

According to his friends, Cardinal Zen remains active, if moving at a slower pace, and in good health. He has most recently spoken out forcefully against Beijing’s encroachment on civil liberties in Hong Kong, especially concerning a draconian national security law imposed on the former British colony by the Chinese Communist Party in June 2020. The law, the cardinal told the Register last year, has led to a “terrible situation” for the territory, “taking away all guarantee of civil rights — nothing is safe anymore.” 

Aimed at suppressing protests and freedom of expression, many arrests and detentions have been made, including of Catholic media magnate Jimmy Lai, a long-time friend of the cardinal, who was jailed in December for 13 months for taking part in a vigil marking the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing. 

“Jimmy Lai and Cardinal Zen are like two peas in a pod,” said Mark Simon, a former senior executive of Apple Daily, Lai’s Hong Kong newspaper that the authorities closed down last summer. “They march to a higher drum.” 


‘Moral and Spiritual Giant’

Benedict Rogers, co-founder and chief executive of Hong Kong Watch who has known the cardinal for more than 20 years, said the cardinal is “a moral and spiritual giant” whose “fortitude, humility, compassion and conviction” have been an inspiration to him. He is someone who has “consistently shown immense courage in speaking out against the Chinese Communist Party’s repression and for the Church in China and freedom in Hong Kong,” Rogers told the Register.

Lord Christopher Patten, the last governor of Hong Kong who spent many years negotiating with Beijing before handing the former colony over to China in 1999, described Cardinal Zen as “a real prince of the Church — brave, pastoral and on the right side of history.”

The retired Catholic politician told the Register, “I am afraid you won’t get a very balanced view from me on him since I have no criticism at all of the courageous stand he has taken on human rights, not least in China, and I know very well about the pastoral concern he showed to Catholics in Hong Kong including one or two with whom he did not agree with on political issues.”  

“He is a fine man,” Lord Patten added, “and I don’t think that history will make any other judgement about him.”

Cardinal Zen has spoken out extensively on behalf of Catholics in mainland China, highlighting human rights violations and also objecting to recent moves by the Holy See to seek a compromise with an increasingly repressive Beijing. 

These efforts came to a head in 2018 with the Sino-Holy See provisional, and so far unpublished, concordat on the appointment of bishops (renewed in 2020), and the Vatican’s 2019 pastoral guidelines encouraging Catholic clergy to join the country’s state-run church. 

Cardinal Zen believes that through these documents the Vatican has betrayed the many Catholic bishops, priests and laity who for decades resisted joining the state-run church, the Patriotic Association, and chose instead to remain loyal to Rome at the cost of persecution and imprisonment. For its part, the Vatican contends the measures are aimed at protecting religious freedom and that patience is needed. 

Lord Alton said his “greatest regret is that Cardinal Zen wasn’t listened to when he spoke out against the Vatican's secret concordat with the CCP — or even granted admission at the Vatican when he travelled there to set out his concerns.”

“It says a great deal about Cardinal Zen that he has borne that cross with such dignity and acceptance,” Lord Alton told the Register.

Nina Shea, director of the Center for Religious Freedom at the Hudson Institute, praised the cardinal for his “inspirational presence” during this “dark time for religious freedom and human rights in Hong Kong.” In particular, she said his “admonitions that the CCP meant to kill the underground Church that once enabled Catholicism to weather the Cultural Revolution have been sadly vindicated.” 

Shea said she was “deeply honored” when the cardinal visited her in 2011 in Washington D.C. and warned against “the Ostpolitik policy, now institutionalized, [that] was being pursued by Vatican diplomats too willing to compromise with Beijing.” 


Traditional Mass 

The cardinal has also not been afraid to speak up about other issues such as recent restrictions on the traditional Mass. In comments last July, he said Pope Francis’ motu proprio Traditionis Custodes (Guardians of Tradition) contained “many tendentious generalizations in the documents” that have “hurt the hearts of many good people more than expected.” He also expressed his “pain and indignation” at the suppression of non-concelebrated Masses in St. Peter’s Basilica last March.

Given his outspokenness, Cardinal Zen is naturally not without his opponents, not only within in the CCP but also in the Vatican and elsewhere. 

A clandestine Chinese priest called Father Paul Han accused him in 2015 of causing “a lot of din,” sometimes raising his voice “without looking at the facts,” and drowning the “voices of the bishops and laity on mainland China.” And in 2020, Cardinal Giovanni Battista Re, dean of the College of Cardinals, explained in a public letter to cardinals why he thought the cardinal was wrong on numerous points regarding the Church in China (Cardinal Zen subsequently responded to each of them). 

In his comments to the Register, the anonymous Hong Kong source explained why the cardinal speaks out so firmly against injustice, especially concerning the Holy See’s current approach to China.

“If you had been a bishop, priest or ordinary member of Catholic Church who refused to join the patriotic, state-run church for 20-30 years and instead showed loyalty to the Vatican, running a lot of risks, perhaps imprisoned for many years, but now you’re told you shouldn’t have done that and you’d better join the Patriotic Association, how would you have reacted?” the source asked. “This is just one reason why he has a lot of support.” 

Simon pointed out that Cardinal Zen “is accused sometimes of splitting the Church, but he hasn’t changed. It is those who are trying to make it appear that China has changed. [Cardinal] Zen has never changed, and it is people like Carrie Lam [the Catholic chief executive of Hong Kong] who have adjusted the faith to match their ideology.”  

Rogers believes that “even if, regrettably, he has not yet succeeded in awakening consciences in the Vatican,” Cardinal Zen has “helped awaken the conscience of the world.” 

Lord Alton predicted that across the globe, Cardinal Zen’s “friends and admirers will today be wishing him Ad multos annos and giving thanks for his courage and example.”