Depending on where you are in your day – just starting it at work or ending it at home – you will need either a double espresso or a large glass of Cabernet to digest the news that follows.

I was devastated a week ago when I read the Asia News report that bishops in the underground Church in China, loyal to Rome, had been asked to step aside to make room for bishops appointed by the Chinese government. That couldn’t be! Why ever would the Vatican take such a step, if it did?

The confirmation came today via Cardinal Joseph Zen, emeritus of Hong King, who wrote a lengthy report on his Facebook page, and that was picked up by Asia News: See below for that entire report by the cardinal.

Why is this all so important to me? What is the background in Catholic Church-China relations? Continue reading…


For years I have followed news of the Church in those regions of the world where it was (is) being persecuted. In the late 70s and the 80s, my attention turned to Eastern Europe and the communist countries. I was in Hungary in 1983 as the guest of a bishop and wrote a long series of stories for the National Catholic Register about the Catholic Church in this country where about 60% of the populace professed to be Catholic.

At the time, the best place, if you will, to be a Catholic was Poland, the worst place was (then) Czechoslovakia. Hungary was somewhere in the middle of those poles.

In ensuing years I focussed on the Middle East and, in ways large and small, on China and even Vietnam, which I visited in 2013. In fact, as I write, I have an invitation to return to Vietnam next month, and have not been able to finalize that, although I cherish the idea of going back. I felt my 2013 trip had some unfinished business – maybe I can have a miracle happen.

I have been to both mainland China and to Taiwan. I was in Beijing in 1995 with the Holy See delegation for the United Nations international conference on women. The delegation spent almost three weeks in Beijing, taking off only a few hours in that time to visit the city as tourists.

Three photo ID badges were issued to attendees, carrying only in color: one color for official delegates, a second color for NGOs and the third was for the media. We wore these every waking moment of our day.

Two things about our time in Beijing – about being a Catholic in Beijing – that
I’ll never forget:

We each had our own room in the hotel, of course, but the entire delegation had a big suite where we’d conduct our business, and the first business of the day was always Mass at 7 am. We left the door slightly ajar as we knew that Chinese police officials were watching our every move and listening to our every word from the corridor outside the suite – we wanted to show them we had nothing to hide. Naturally, however, at any other moment outside of a U.N conference, Mass in a hotel room could have invited enormous negative consequences!

Theoretically, per hotel policy, we were not to have computers in our rooms, Not only did I have a computer but I was to be the go-between for messages from the Vatican Secretariat of State and our delegation so I also had a printer in my room.

I know my room was visited by the police as I stole an idea from police movies. I actually took a piece of hair, licked both ends and put it over my closed door when I left the room to go to our office suite. It was gone when I came back!

Second thing: We were told we could visit the cathedral in Beijing where Jesuit Fr. Matteo Ricci was buried but it was suggested we go two or three at a time, but not the entire delegation at one time, lest this look like a “statement” from the Pope, the Vatican or the Catholic Church. A wise idea – why invite trouble?

There is a lot more I’d like to say now about China and a lot as well about my 12-day visit to Taiwan in 2001 but time is short before I have another appointment.

My main reason for dedicating this column today to China – and not to all the amazing news from the weekend (the papal visit to the church for Ukrainian Greek Catholics, Francis’ Mass yesterday at St. Mary Major before the restored Marian icon Salus populi romani and his plea at the Angelus for the people of Afghanistan as they once again undergo a massive terrorist carnage, a new papal document today, etc.) – is because of the extremely unsettling news coming from China via Cardinal Joseph Zen and AsiaNews.

First, here is a link to the story several days ago from Asia News that suggested the unthinkable: that the Vatican was asking legitimately ordained bishops in China from the so-called “underground Church,” loyal to Rome to step aside to make room for bishops appointed by the Chinese government!

And here’s the torpedo of confirmation that arrived today via Cardinal Zen who posted this on his Facebook page which was brought to our attention by AsiaNews and is now the headline heard around the world:


The bishop emeritus of Hong Kong confirms the information published in recent days by AsiaNews and reveals details of his conversation with Pope Francis on these topics: “Do not create another Mindszenty case”, the primate of Hungary whom the Vatican forced to leave the country, appointing a successor in Budapest, at the will of the communist government of the time.

Hong Kong (AsiaNews) – Below we publish the article that Card. Joseph Zen, bishop emeritus of Hong Kong, posted today on his blog, regarding the events reported by AsiaNews where a Vatican prelate asked the bishops of Shantou and Mindong, underground and recognized by the Holy See, to step down to leave their place to two illegitimate and excommunicated bishops.

Monday, 29 January, 2018
Dear Friends in the Media,
Since AsiaNews has revealed some recent facts in the Church in mainland China, of legitimate bishops being asked by the “Holy See” to resign and make place for illegitimate, even explicitly excommunicated, “bishops”, many different versions of the facts and interpretations are creating confusion among the people. Many, knowing of my recent trip to Rome, are asking me for some clarification.

Back in October, when Bishop Zhuang received the first communication from the Holy See and asked me for help, I send someone to bring his letter to the Prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples with, enclosed, a copy for the Holy Father. I don’t know if that enclosed copy reached the desk of the Holy Father. Fortunately, Archbishop Savio Hon Tai Fai was still in Rome and could meet the Pope in a farewell visit. In that occasion, he brought the two cases of Shantou and Mindong to the knowledge of the Holy Father. The Holy Father was surprised and promised to look into the matter.

Given the words of the Holy Father to Archbishop Savio Hon, the new facts in December were all the more a shocking surprise to me.When the old distressed Bishop Zhuang asked me to bring to the Holy Father his answer to the message conveyed to him by the “Vatican Delegation” in Beijing, I simply could not say “No”. But what could I do to make sure that his letter reach the Holy Father, while not even I can be sure that my own many letters did reach him.

To make sure that our voice reached the Holy Father, I took the sudden decision of going to Rome. I left Hong Kong the night of 9th January, arriving in Rome the early morning of 10th January, just in time (actually, a bit late) to join the Wednesday Public Audience. At the end of the audience, we Cardinals and Bishops are admitted to the “bacia mano” and I had the chance to put into the hands of the Holy Father the envelop, saying that I was coming to Rome for the only purpose of bringing to him a letter of Bishop Zhuang, hoping he can find time to read it (in the envelop there was the original letter of the Bishop in Chinese with my translation into Italian and a letter of mine).

For obvious reasons, I hoped my appearance at the audience would not be too much noticed, but my late arrival in the hall made it particularly noticeable. Anyway, now everybody can see the whole proceeding from the Vatican TV (by the way, the audience was held in Paul VI Hall, not in St. Peter’s Square and I was a little late to the audience, but did not have to “wait in a queue, in a cold weather”, as some media erroneously reported).

When in Rome, I met Fr. Bernard Cervellera of AsiaNews. We exchanged our information, but I told him not to write anything. He complied. Now that someone else broke the news, I can agree to confirm it. Yes, as far as I know, things happened just as they are related in AsiaNews (the AsiaNews report “believes” that the Bishop leading the Vatican Delegation was Msgr. Celli. I do not know in what official capacity he was there, but it is most likely that he was the one there in Beijing).

In this crucial moment and given the confusion in the media, I, knowing directly the situation of Shantou and indirectly that of Mindong, feel duty-bound to share my knowledge of the facts, so that the people sincerely concerned with the good of the Church may know the truth to which they are entitled. I am well aware that in doing so I may talk about things which, technically, are qualified as “confidential”. But my conscience tells me that in this case the “right to truth” should override any such “duty of confidentiality”.

With such conviction, I am going to share with you also the following:
In the afternoon of that day, 10th January, I received a phone-call from Santa Marta telling me that the Holy Father would receive me in private audience in the evening of Friday 12th January (though the report appeared only on 14th January in the Holy See bulletin). That was the last day of my 85 years of life, what a gift from Heaven! (Note that it was the vigil of the Holy Father’s departure for Chile and Peru, so the Holy Father must have been very busy).(JFL: The cardinal turned 86 on January 13)

On that evening the conversation lasted about half an hour. I was rather disorderly in my talking, but I think I succeeded to convey to the Holy Father the worries of his faithful children in China.

The most important question I put to the Holy Father (which was also in the letter) was whether he had had time “to look into the matter” (as he promised Archbishop Savio Hon). In spite of the danger of being accused of breach of confidentiality, I decide to tell you what His Holiness said: “Yes, I told them (his collaborators in the Holy See) not to create another Mindszenty case”! I was there in the presence of the Holy Father representing my suffering brothers in China. His words should be rightly understood as of consolation and encouragement more for them than for me.

I think it was most meaningful and appropriate for the Holy Father to make this historical reference to Card. Josef Mindszenty, one of the heroes of our faith. (Card. Josef Mindszenty was the Archbishop of Budapest, Cardinal Primate of Hungary under Communist persecution. He suffered much in several years in prison. During the short-lived revolution of 1956, he was freed from prison by the insurgents and, before the Red Army crashed the revolution, took refuge in the American Embassy. Under the pressure of the Government he was ordered by the Holy See to leave his country and immediately a successor was named to the likings of the Communist Government).

With this revelation, I hope I have satisfied the legitimate “right to know” of the media and of my brothers in China.

The important thing for us now is to pray for the Holy Father, very fittingly by singing the traditional song “Oremus”: Oremus pro Pontifice nostro Francisco, Dominus conservet eum et vivificet eum et beatum faciat eum in terra et non tradat eum in animam inimicorum eius.
Some explanations may still be in order.
1. Please, notice that the problem is not the resignation of the legitimate Bishops, but the request to make place for the illegitimate and even excommunicated ones. Many old underground Bishops, though the retirement age law has never been enforced in China, have insistently asked for a successor, but have never received any answer from the Holy See. Some others, who have a successor already named, may be even already in possession of the Bulla signed by the Holy Father, were ordered not to proceed with the ordination for fear of offending the Government.
2. I have talked mainly of the two cases of Shantou and Mindong. I do not have any other information except the copy of a letter written by an outstanding Catholic lady, a retired University professor well-acquainted with affairs of the Church in China, in which she warns Msgr. Celli against pushing for the legitimization of “bishop” Lei Shi Ying in Sichuan.
3. I acknowledge myself as a pessimist regarding the present situation of the Church in China, but my pessimism has a foundation in my long direct experience of the Church in China. From 1989 to 1996 I used to spend six months a year teaching in the various Seminaries of the official Catholic community. I had direct experience of the slavery and humiliation to which those our brother Bishops are subjected.
And from the recent information, there is no reason to change that pessimistic view. The Communist Government is making new harsher regulations limiting religious freedom. They are now strictly enforcing regulations which up to now were practically only on paper (from the 1st of February 2018 attendance to Mass in the underground will no longer be tolerated).
4. Some say that all the efforts to reach an agreement is to avoid the ecclesial schism. How ridiculous! The schism is there, in the Independent Church! The Popes avoided using the word “schism” because they knew that many in the official Catholic community were there not by their own free will, but under heavy pressure. The proposed “unification” would force everybody into that community. The Vatican would be giving the blessing on the new strengthened schismatic Church, taking away the bad conscience from all those who are already willing renegades and those others who would readily join them.
5. Is it not good to try to find mutual ground to bridge the decades-long divide between the Vatican and China? But can there be anything really “mutual” with a totalitarian regime? Either you surrender or you accept persecution, but remaining faithful to yourself (can you imagine an agreement between St. Joseph and King Herod?)
6. So, do I think that the Vatican is selling out the Catholic Church in China? Yes, definitely, if they go in the direction which is obvious from all what they are doing in recent years and months.
7. Some expert on the Catholic Church in China is saying that it is not logical to suppose a harsher religious policy from Xi Jinping. However, we are not talking about logical thinking, but the obvious and crude reality.
8. Am I the major obstacle in the process of reaching a deal between the Vatican and China? If that is a bad deal, I would be more than happy to be the obstacle.


Since diplomatic ties between the Holy See and China were broken off in 1951, attempts have been made to close the breach between the two. In recent years, however, with both the disappearance in China of a number of Catholic priests and bishops, some of whom were taken for questioning and released, while others are still to be heard from, and the illegitimate ordination in China of bishops without a papal mandate, relations have soured.

In any discussion between the Catholic Church and China, the nomination of bishops and religious freedom in mainland China are always the issued at the top of the agenda.

For years, the Holy See has always asked that Catholics – and others – be allowed to freely profess their faith, free of constraint or interference from the Chinese government and that it be allowed to name and ordain its bishops, without government approval or interference.

China asks that the Holy See break off diplomatic relations with Taiwan – which it considers part of the Peoples’ Republic of China and a renegade province (whereas Taiwan calls itself the Republic of China). It also asks the Holy See not to interfere in China’s internal affairs – which, for China, includes the naming of bishops.

The Vatican has suggested that, when all conditions were right (religious freedom in China, the Catholic Church could pursue its mission unfettered, name its own bishops and run its own affairs), it would break off relations with Taiwan and set up an embassy in Beijing. It will not, however, compromise on the naming of bishops.

On March 24, 2006, there was a consistory to create new cardinals, including Joseph Zen, archbishop of Hong Kong. Fr. Dominic Chan, vicar general of Hong Kong, was in Rome, and he greeted Pope Benedict several days after the consistory. He reported that he told the Pope the diocese supports Cardinal Zen and all the work he does for the Church in China and to promote religious freedom.

Fr. Chan asked the Pope if he would visit Hong Kong and China, to which Benedict XVI replied, “a visit would be good” but “it depends on God’s will.”

The day of the consistory Cardinal Zen introduced Hong Kong newspaper owner, Jimmy Lai to the Pope who asked him to come to China and “to bring love and democracy.” The cardinal also presented another layman as a Hong Kong legislator fighting for democracy, to which the Pope allegedly told him, “Continue.”

No Pope has ever been to mainland China. For such a trip to occur, many obstacles have to be cleared: Popes usually undertakes trips to countries with whom they have diplomatic relations: the Holy See and mainland China – the Peoples’ Republic of China – do not have such ties. In addition, they must be invited by both the national government and the country’s Episcopal conference.

Since that invitation in March 2006 there have been numerous
illegitimate ordinations in China carried out by the government-approved Patriotric Catholic Church. The Vatican almost every time released a statement, deploring the illegitimate ordination, saying it “hopes such incidents will not be repeated in the future.”

The Vatican explains that “an ordination conferred without the pontifical mandate, that is, without respecting the discipline of the Catholic Church concerning the appointment of bishops” is illegitimate. In fact, Canon 377, Para 1 of the Code of Canon Law says: “The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints bishops or confirms those who have been legitimately elected.”

One Vatican statement about an illegitimate ordination noted that this “was just the latest of the illegitimate episcopal ordinations which have been distressing the Catholic Church in China for many decades, creating divisions in diocesan communities and tormenting the consciences of many ecclesiastics and faithful. This extremely grave series of acts … undermines the fundamental principles of (the Church’s) hierarchical structure.”

In June 2006 a Vatican delegation led by Archbishop Claudio Maria Celli visited China. Though he used to work for the Secretariat of State, was for a while the secretary of APSA, the Administration of the Patrimony of the Apostolic See, and then for several years headed the late Pontifical Council for Social Communications, Archbishop Celli has been for years an expert on relations between Rome and Beijing and has visited China many times. He has also been to Vietnam on missions for the Holy See.

In 2007, Pope Benedict XVI wrote a “Letter to the Bishops, Priests, Consecrated persons and Lay faithful of the Catholic Church in the People’s Republic of China.” It began:


1. Dear Brother Bishops, dear priests, consecrated persons and all the faithful of the Catholic Church in China: “We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, because we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love which you have for all the saints, because of the hope laid up for you in heaven … We have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. May you be strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy” (Col 1:3-5, 9-11).

These words of the Apostle Paul are highly appropriate for expressing the sentiments that I, as the Successor of Peter and universal Pastor of the Church, feel towards you. You know well how much you are present in my heart and in my daily prayer and how deep is the relationship of communion that unites us spiritually.

Purpose of the Letter

2. I wish, therefore, to convey to all of you the expression of my fraternal closeness. With intense joy I acknowledge your faithfulness to Christ the Lord and to the Church, a faithfulness that you have manifested “sometimes at the price of grave sufferings”[1], since “it has been granted to you that for the sake of Christ you should not only believe in him but also suffer for his sake” (Phil 1:29). Nevertheless, some important aspects of the ecclesial life of your country give cause for concern.

Without claiming to deal with every detail of the complex matters well known to you, I wish through this letter to offer some guidelines concerning the life of the Church and the task of evangelization in China, in order to help you discover what the Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, “the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of human history” [2] wants from you.

The Holy Father ended his Letter: “I pray that you, dear Pastors of the Catholic Church which is in China, priests, consecrated persons and lay faithful, may rejoice, though now for a little while you may have to suffer various trials…”
Given in Rome, at Saint Peter’s, on 27 May, the Solemnity of Pentecost, in the year 2007, the third of my Pontificate.

For complete text, click here:

To understand the situation in China even today vis-a-vis the Catholic
Church, you will want to read Benedict’s entire letter