The Salesian House of Studies has not changed much since it was built on a Hong Kong hillside in the 1930s. But the city around it has altered beyond recognition. Tower blocks, main roads and schools have sprung up and engulfed the mission house. The soundtrack of the presumably once tranquil retreat is now a symphony of constant drilling, rushing traffic and workmen shouting.
Cardinal Joseph Zen himself greets me at the door of the mission house. The humble building is where he began his studies in 1948, when he travelled to the island from his home in Shanghai just a year before Mao Zedong seized control of the mainland. After standing down as Bishop of Hong Kong in 2009, he has returned to the place where it all began for his retirement.
It is not just the landscape around the mission house that has been transformed during Zen’s ecclesiastical career. On July 1, 1997, the handover of the British territory to the Chinese government took place in accordance with the “one country, two systems” principle, granting Hong Kong the right to retain its capitalist economy and political structure.
“I think at the time of the handover there were many different expectations,” says Zen. “Some were very optimistic, some pessimistic. There was a promise of ‘one country, two systems’. But I never believed that it could really work because the communists simply cannot understand our system. The fact is that the 20 years of Chinese control are 20 years of fighting.”
And Cardinal Zen, who only seems to be his 85 years when he cups a hand round his ear to hear what you are saying more clearly, has been a constant figure at the frontline of that fight.
His outspoken personality contrasts with that of his favourite biblical character, St Joseph, whom the cardinal describes as quiet and humble. “He says no word in the Holy Scripture, but I’m not like him. I envy him: I talk the whole time.”
After being made Bishop of Hong Kong in 2002, Zen led the diocese in condemning proposed laws which favoured central government control from Beijing. He even embarked on a hunger strike to oppose educational reforms that would see the Church lose control of its schools.
Cardinal Zen regrets the failure to stop the education laws from being passed. “Unfortunately, at that time people did not realise the dangers,” he recalls, “Only after the government started pushing for so-called patriotic education the people realised: ‘Ah, taking control of education away from the Church was the first step, now the second step is coming.’ ”
Despite this setback, the cardinal continues to campaign for democracy and human rights in the city. Reflecting on the advances made through political activism, he says: “By raising our voice I think we succeeded in saving some things from being damaged by [Beijing’s] intervention. But I think we have to be resigned to the fact that Hong Kong is very weak and all we can do is to prevent things from becoming worse.”
A man of clear principles, Zen maintains that standing up against social injustice is a central teaching of the Catholic Church. He says he learnt this from a “wonderful professor” during his nine years studying at the Salesian Pontifical University in Rome in the 1960s.
One injustice the cardinal has always spoken out against is the persecution of Catholics in China. Born and raised in pre-communist Shanghai, Zen remembers a childhood without discrimination. “In Shanghai we had a hard life during the war with Japanese occupation, but they didn’t intervene directly in the Church. But when the communists came then we had persecution in the Church – very hard persecution. “When the communists took power I could not go back to China any more. I was able to communicate with my family but very carefully.”
As the regime began to expel missionaries, jail priests and destroy churches, relations between Beijing and Rome were severed. There has been no official diplomatic relationship between the two since 1951, something that Pope Francis and the Vatican are eager to change.
But Zen passionately opposes a looming deal between the Holy See and the communist state which would acknowledge the legitimacy of government-appointed bishops in the Chinese Catholic Patriotic Association (CCPA) – the official church.
“In my conscience, I have to shout what my convictions are,” he says, “because it would be a disaster if they accept the wrong agreement. There is no improvement for Catholic life in China. Surely it is going backwards, and I cannot allow that to happen.”
Last year Zen spoke out forcefully against the agreement, telling the Wall Street Journal that “with fake bishops you are destroying the Church”. But he insists that he is not opposed to dialogue between China and the Vatican. “I am never against the dialogue because you have to talk to have an agreement. But what I say is be careful: what kind of agreement are you going to have?”
Zen also maintains that he is not against everyone in the CCPA. “It’s unfortunate that people make this distinction between the underground and the official church. Even in the official church there are good people who are loyal to the authority of the Pope.”
What seems to rile the cardinal most about the proposed deal is that he and other bishops from China have been left out of the discussion.
“I am a Chinese cardinal,” he says. “There are not many Chinese cardinals. There are two – but I don’t know anything!”
Benedict XVI appointed Zen, along with 30 others, to a Vatican commission on China in 2007. Yet the cardinal says that, since Pope Francis was elected in 2013, the commission has “just disappeared”, without any official notice. He calls Rome’s lack of communication on the matter “an absolute impoliteness” and accuses those advising the Pope of not wanting to listen to the people on the ground.
The cardinal bangs his fists on the table as he says: “How can they believe they know the situation better than me? Better than Archbishop Savio Hon Tai-Fai, who is the number two in the Congregation of Evangelisation? We are Chinese! We have been in China so many years, teaching in the seminaries, spending six months a year there and seeing what’s going on with our own eyes. They don’t believe us. They don’t listen to us. So terrible.”
Zen says that the Pope’s advisers seem to want to “have success at any cost” with a Vatican-Beijing deal. But the cardinal insists that the Church should not bow to any earthly government.
“We still have so much strength in our Church. That’s a spiritual force. So why not use those forces to strengthen our position? Why don’t they understand that if you hold your position strong you can do something, you can achieve something?”
Despite last year’s furore over the deal, Zen now believes that the prospect of an agreement with Beijing has fallen apart.
“In this moment it seems that things are not proceeding,” he says. “I guess that the agreement about the selection of bishops is ready but not signed. I think the government wants the Holy See to grant everything. Not just about the selection of bishops but many other things to control the Church. But these other things aren’t possible. So then the government refuses to sign. So for me that’s good.”
The cardinal’s firmness on Beijing reflects the steadfastness of his own faith. A Catholic since birth, he says he has never doubted the existence of God. “I didn’t suffer much for my faith,” he reflects. “Everything is smooth in my life. Only this last period when unfortunately I’ve had to fight even the Vatican… But for the rest of my life it was very comfortable, very peaceful. I really cannot complain.”
The cardinal reveals his daily prayer for the next 20 years of Catholic life in Hong Kong and the mainland. “I pray, dear Lord, to strengthen those who are courageously keeping their faith, to give courage to those who are hesitating and to convert those who have given up their faith practically,” he tells me.
“There are many Catholics who need help. The strong people need help, the hesitating people need help and the bad people need conversion. Then there will be complete victory of God.”
Megan Griffiths is a freelance journalist
This article first appeared in the May 19 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here