Cardinal Zen: Catholics Face an “Uncomfortable Situation” in Hong Kong

Cardinal Joseph Zen, the retired Bishop of Hong Kong, said that Catholics face an “uncomfortable situation” there, as they try to “preserve the essence of our Catholicism and, on the other, cooperate with the government appropriately.” But he voiced his confidence that his successor, Cardinal-designate Stephen Chow, could cope with the difficulties.

Newsroom (28/08/2023 12:20Gaudium Press) Cardinal Joseph Zen, 91, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, was interviewed by the Christian Times, an evangelical newspaper in Hong Kong, at the Salesian seminary where he lives.

In it he spoke about his friendship with Rev Yuen Tin-yau, president of the Methodist Church, who died on 16 July at the age of 71. Together, the two took part in many a battle for freedom of education and for young people.

The prelate also spoke about his physical frailty and the current situation in Hong Kong. “Now it is a very tense time,” Card. Zen said. “We do as much as we can. It does not matter what we cannot do; we are not saviours.”

The authors of the interview say they had a couple of questions about the late great figure, but then it turned into an hour-long chat on many topics.

Cardinal Zen is described as tired, particularly after returning to Hong Kong in early January following the funeral of Benedict XVI and the meeting with Pope Francis. On that occasion, the prelate was granted special permission since he is subject to court restrictions.

Earlier this year, he was admitted to hospital for a few weeks, and now has to use a wheelchair because he does not feel safe on his own legs. This is a source of great concern since it prevents him from carrying out his prison ministry, to which he dedicated himself after he left the leadership of the diocese.

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He says he has “many old friends in prison, especially those who have been there for more than 10 years” but “gained more in the last two years” following many arrests during the latest protests.

“Some of them have their own beliefs, and some have been baptized in prison. They (the inmates), even many non-believers, are happy to see me and I am very happy to go there. But it’s a shame I can’t do it because I can’t walk.”

The prison is big with many stairs to climb. As he got older, his legs started to get inflamed. “I used crutches to help me, but it is like walking with your hands and in the end even the elbows and shoulders became inflamed – then the nerves and hands. It is useless to go to jail with a walker. They would say, ‘What are you doing here? It’s not a hospital’.”

He closely follows rehab exercises, but admits that his feet “sometimes improve, sometimes regress.”

“I put myself in God’s hands. If I manage to heal quickly and walk, I will visit the prisoners again. And I will go to court to encourage people not to be discouraged, not to get angry … It’s a bit difficult, but the most important thing is not to hate.”

In spirit, Card Zen remains the same as in the many battles he fought alongside Rev Yuen Tin-yau, who was also in the streets until a few years ago in defense of young protesters.

The friendship between the two men was born 20 years ago, at the time of the school ordinance, when Hong Kong authorities began to impose their representatives in the management bodies running Christian schools.

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Back then, Zen was the bishop and Yuen Tin-yau was the executive director of the Methodist education department. Together they fought the amendment that “took away the Church’s right to run schools.” The Catholic Diocese of Hong Kong appealed the matter but lost.

“Anyone who has eyes to see realizes what schools are like now’” Card Zen said. “It doesn’t matter if we weren’t successful, we did what we had to do.”

By contrast, the friendship with Rev Yuen Tin-yau never failed. When in May of last year, the cardinal was arrested over the 612 Fund, the pastor called for prayers for “our respected Card Zen”.

Last month, upon hearing of the death of his Methodist friend, the bishop emeritus of Hong Kong said he celebrated Mass in his memory.

Today, in his name, he encourages all those still active in education. “I hope they continue to struggle amid such difficult circumstances.”

In the interview, Cardinal Zen also spoke about Hong Kong’s incumbent Catholic bishop, Stephen Chow, whom Francis will elevate to the rank of cardinal in the consistory of 30 September.

“The pope has given us an excellent bishop,” he repeats, praising Chow for his wisdom in dealing with the “uncomfortable situation of one country, two systems.”

“Under present circumstances, we Catholics can, on the one hand, preserve the essence of our Catholicism and, on the other, cooperate with the government appropriately. It is a very difficult thing to do, but he can do it.” At the same time, “We have to give him some time, trusting that he will do well.”

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Lastly, Cardinal Zen is concerned about “confusion” in the Church, because “some of the true traditions cannot be changed at will. Many people in the Church today seem to want to change everything and I am very worried about that,” adding that as long as he is alive, he will continue to make his voice heard.

  • Raju Hasmukh with files from

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