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Cardinal Joseph ZenClaire Chretien / LifeSiteNews

February 21, 2017 (LifeSiteNews) – Cardinal Joseph Zen says the Vatican is betraying Catholics living their faith out clandestinely in China. 

In an exclusive February 15 interview in Washington, D.C. with LifeSiteNews, he says he has been urged to speak out by Catholics who lack the freedom to speak for themselves. Priests and bishops in the underground church have faced imprisonment for adhering to the Holy See, rather than submitting to the patriotic church approved by the Communist government.

Cardinal Zen, the Bishop Emeritus of Hong Kong and China's highest-ranking prelate, is pleading with the Vatican not to “sell out” China's Catholics by striking a deal with the Communist government.

Such a deal would allow the Chinese government to nominate bishops for the pope to accept or reject. It would essentially mean Vatican acceptance of the government-controlled Church in China.

The Chinese government wants “total surrender” from the Church, Zen told LifeSiteNews, even though such a deal may appear to give the pope some power.

The Catholic Church in China operates underground. The government runs the Chinese Patriotic Catholic Association, a fake church of communist-approved and monitored clerics. Bishops of the underground church, which is loyal to the pope and not the communist government, face imprisonment and persecution. 

Zen says that a Vatican deal with the Chinese government would damage the Church's credibility. After all, if the Chinese government can appoint bishops, other governments could expect to do so as well. 

“We are very much worried because it seems that the Vatican is going to make a very bad agreement with China,” Zen told LifeSiteNews. “And I can understand that the pope is really naive…He doesn’t know the Chinese communists. But unfortunately the people around him are not good at all. They have very wrong ideas. And I’m afraid that they may sell out our underground Church. That would be very sad.”

Such a deal would “give too much decision power to the government” and sacrifice Church principles. Pope Francis having the last word “cannot stop a bad proceeding,” Zen said. The only candidates for the episcopacy the pope would be able to approve would already be vetted by the communists.

“They don’t have much public voice, the underground,” Zen explained. “People who come from China to see me, they all say, ‘please, you must raise your voice. We cannot say anything’ because they have no freedom to talk. So I keep talking, but it seems that they [the Holy See] don’t listen. They don’t like to listen.”

Some Holy See officials “consider the underground, the faithful,” to be “troublemakers,” he said. And the pope has a strong desire for unity and peace but is “rather naive” about the nature of the Chinese government.

Zen met with Pope Francis two years ago.

“He listened to me very carefully for 40 minutes,” said Zen. “He seemed to be very much agreeing with me. So I don’t know what is going to happen.”

He said he's written the pontiff “many letters…But then he doesn’t answer my letters.”

“The thing we can do is to pray,” said Zen. “We believe in the power of prayer.”

Vatican giving confusing instructions to underground Church

Zen, a former seminary professor who speaks Mandarin, Cantonese, Shanghainese, English, Italian, and Latin (and can read French), is not welcome in his native China. 

“They told me, 'don't come unless invited,'” he laughed.

Zen said that under Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, there was a Vatican commission examining the question of Vatican negotiations with China. But once Pope Francis took power, it “just disappeared,” said Zen. “Many [commission members] are very competent. They know the reality” about communism in China.

The underground Church in China isn't in great shape, Zen said, and this is partly because of confusing instructions its clerics have received from the Vatican.

In the Baoqing diocese, for example, the underground is “very strong.”

“Both the bishop and the auxiliary bishop were in prison for many years,” he said. But then, “the government tells the auxiliary bishop in prison, say, ‘okay, you may come out, and we allow you to function as bishop.’ And he [asked for] instruction from Rome,” said Zen.

Rome told him to go ahead and function as a bishop with the approval of the government. They did this “without consulting the commission, without consulting anybody.”

“That was a big mistake,” Zen contends. “First of all, he cannot be the bishop. He is only [the] auxiliary bishop” and the real bishop was still imprisoned. This caused confusion amongst the underground priests who couldn't accept him.

“Now this man is very simple-minded,” said Zen. “He was in prison for many years, so that means he’s strong, eh? But [he's a] very simple-minded man. So now out of the prison, he let himself to be brainwashed by the government. And so he accepted to be part of the Patriotic Association.”

“He explained with a letter” how he accepted the government's desire he be installed as bishop “and the Holy See accepted his explanation…And then he took part in [an] illegitimate ordination of bishop. That’s incredible!”

“The problem is not with him,” said Zen. “He is a simple man. The problem is with the Vatican! They are giving him [the] wrong instruction…the Vatican made all this trouble. And they tell the priests, 'you have to obey to your bishop.' They say, ‘no! He is no more our bishop! Our bishop is still in prison!’”

In another diocese, after the bishop belonging to the Patriotic Association died, some of the priests of the “official” church went to the underground bishop asking to join him. Rome told the bishop to welcome them, which caused “disturbance in the underground Church.”

Underground priests “didn’t dare to come anymore” to Holy Week liturgies with the bishop or other functions for fear of government retribution facilitated by these priests of the “official” church.

Then, the bishop “sent some of [the government priests] to some of those underground parishes. And after a while, the police [came] to send away the underground priests from the parish. They lost the parish. So it’s incredible how [the Holy See] can be so naive to believe that he can accept those official priests into his diocese. He cannot. You may treat them kindly, have a cup of tea together, but you cannot integrate them into your underground diocese.”

Priests of the Patriotic Association “are still under the control of the government,” said Zen. “So things which to us appear so obvious, the Holy See doesn’t understand.”

Other critics of a Vatican-China deal note that the Catholic Church has outlasted and resisted tyrannical governments throughout history. If it were to make a deal with the Chinese government, it will be remembered as an institution that struck a deal with an oppressive government.

“I have the principle that I would never publicly criticize the Holy Father,” said Zen. So, if a bad deal is made, he will be silent. Until then, though, Zen will loudly oppose it.

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