LONDON- Cardinal Joseph Zen Ze-kiun, the Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong surprised listeners Friday when he conveyed an optimistic outlook on relations between the state-sanctioned church and the underground church in China.
Cardinal Zen, the voice of the suffering Church in China, was due to speak at Westminster Abbey, London, as invited by the Aid to the Church in Need. The occasion saw the launch of a new ACN book, "Persecuted and Forgotten? A Report on Christians Oppressed for their Faith 2005/6". Cardinal Zen gave a speech entitled "The Church in China Today".
Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA), which remains under the control of the Chinese government, and the Underground Church, which remains loyal to the Holy See, have been at odds with one another since the takeover of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.
Yet, the Cardinal said, "The Church in China is fundamentally one.
They’re separate... but just in front of the policies of the government."
Relations between the CCPA and the Vatican soured earlier this year following the ordination of two bishops without the approval of the Holy See.
But although Cardinal Zen disapproved of the ordinations, he also pointed out that the two bishops in question had asked for the Holy See’s approval and went on to highlight the fact that 85 per cent of the bishops in the Catholic Church in China have been legitimised by the Holy See.
"In 50 years they’ve made big progress," he said.
Any genuine attempts by the CCPA and the Underground Church to become one outwardly have also been made difficult because any steps towards one another have "always under the eyes of the government," said Cardinal Zen. "So it’s artificial," he said of the relationship. "Any movement is in the heart of the people."
Cardinal Zen said that the Chinese government continues to create difficulties for Catholics in the country as he painted the picture of a state government with an iron fist grip around the Catholic Church in China.
"In the official church you may see many signs of progress; more and more churches being restored, opened for worship, more children being baptized...but fundamentally nothing changed," said Bishop Zen, who was installed in March 2006 as a sign of the Pope’s high regard for the prelate’s unwaveringly fierce loyalty to Rome in often difficult circumstances.
Cardinal Zen said that although the common believers in China may see more progress, the situation at the top of the Church remains "very bad" but said that the Roman Catholic Church was "using all opportunity to meet with the other side".
"Hong Kong is in the best position to advise the Holy See to the way to normalisation,” said the cardinal, a vehement defender of China’s 15 million Catholics who has the freedom to be such owing to the semi-independence of Hong Kong from mainland China.
He remained optimistic that the Catholic Church in China could one day gain independence from the Chinese government, placing his hope in the young generation and their growing wanderlust to the wider world.
"We are unrepentant optimists," he told Christian Today. "Our hope is that the young generation of communists who have travelled abroad can learn more in that system. Maybe today they cannot show their change in mind but when they come to power we can see a change in the situation."
This may need a "longer process", he admitted.
"If they [the Chinese government] allowed Catholics to be Catholics then there would be no more Patriotic Church."
He added: "What we need is a concerted, united standing of all the western governments."
[Editor’s Note: Maria Mackay reported from London for this article and Eunice Or from San Francisco.]