Cardinal Joseph Zen has said he returned to Hong Kong last Friday after a visit to the Vatican during which he tried in vain to meet the Pope.

Zen, 88, said he had journeyed to Rome in the hopes of persuading Pope Francis to appoint a new bishop for Hong Kong, who “can be trusted by the people” and not be mired in political considerations related to a desire to appease Beijing.

Cardinal Zen Vatican City Pope
Photo: Cardinal Joseph Zen via Twitter.

“It seems to me after one and a half years, the Holy Father must hear from his people in Hong Kong… so I have come to Rome once more for my people, and for the Pope,” Zen said in an interview with the National Catholic Register.

Since the death of Bishop Yeung Ming-cheung last year, formerly retired Cardinal John Tong has served as interim leader of the Hong Kong diocese. The Vatican had originally favoured the city’s auxiliary bishop, Bishop Joseph Ha, for the post but reportedly withdrew the appointment after he was pictured at pro-democracy protests last summer.

Zen said the Vatican should stay out of the politics: “We really need a bishop who is a good shepherd for his flock,” Zen told EWTN Vatican, “I hope he… really gives us a good bishop and not pay too much importance to the political aspect of the problem.”

On his Twitter, Zen said he had handed in a letter asking for a half an hour meeting with the Pope after arriving in Rome on “urgent business.” Zen said he never received a response.

“I eventually returned without success,” he said. “I have no complaints. I know the Pope must be very busy. I am satisfied knowing that my letter may reach him.”

“What’s most important is we do not lose sight of our original intention,” the cardinal added. Zen ended his posts with a reference to a rallying call from last year’s pro-democracy protests: “Brothers climb mountains together! Let’s strive forward together!”

Cardinal Zen Vatican City Pope
Photo: Cardinal Joseph Zen via Twitter.

Cardinal Zen made a similar trip to the Vatican last year but told the Register that his recent visit will be his last to the city-state: “I do not believe I will return again.”

Zen is currently serving his mandatory 14 days in quarantine under the city’s Covid-19 regulations after his five-day visit to Rome.

The Vatican-China agreement

A retired archbishop of the city, Zen has long been an ardent supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He has been an outspoken critic of the warming relationship between the Vatican and Beijing.

In 2018, the Vatican signed a two-year provisional deal with Beijing regarding the appointment of bishops in China. The opaque agreement is expected to be renewed later this month, when it expires on October 22.

Pietro Parolin
Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Pietro Parolin. Photo: Russian Gov’t.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has criticised the planned renewal of the agreement, saying the church was “endangering” its “moral authority” in continuing forward with the deal and calling on its leaders to protect religious freedom in China.

“The Chinese Communist Party has battered every religious community in China,” Pompeo said in a speech at the Vatican last Wednesday. He made references to Beijing’s destruction of churches and arrests of Catholic leaders in China. He also mentioned reports of the state’s replacement of depictions of Jesus in Chinese churches with images of late Chinese leader Mao Zedong and incumbent leader Xi Jinping.

The Pope also declined a meeting with the US secretary of state last week.

National security

Early last month, Cardinal Tong made an announcement to priests in Hong Kong, warning them to “watch their language” during homilies and to avoid “offensive” and “provocative” political statements.

In early August, the Catholic Diocese wrote a letter to principals and supervisors at its schools in Hong Kong urging them to implement national security education in curriculums. It said schools should foster student’s awareness of the city’s laws regarding national security and “correct values” about national identity.

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Rhoda Kwan is HKFP's Assistant Editor. She has previously written for TimeOut Hong Kong and worked at Meanjin, a literary journal. She holds a double bachelor’s degree in Law and Literature from the University of Hong Kong.